Kim Jong Un’s Quest for an ICBM

June 9, 2017
Jeffrey Lewis

This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs on June 9, 2017.

North Korea is on track to conduct a record number of missile tests this year, with the ultimate goal of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. During his 2017 New Year’s Day speech, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un said that his country had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an ICBM.” North Korean state media outlets have repeatedly asserted that despite international protests, the country has the right to conduct such a test at the time of its choosing. And during an April 15 parade in Pyongyang, the regime showed off two different kinds of vehicles, six apiece, each carrying large missile canisters apparently designed to carry ICBMs.

No one doubts that Kim Jong Un wants an ICBM; many, however, wonder whether his missileers are close to delivering one that works. North Korea today has at least four paths to a working ICBM, and although each has its drawbacks, taken together, they suggest a country that will likely succeed before too long.

Why Build a Missile?

There are obvious reasons for North Korea to seek the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. Washington is Pyongyang’s primary adversary and the one power in the world that threatens Kim Jong Un with the fate that befell Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: forcible regime change. The North Koreans believe that Qaddafi, who was toppled by a NATO intervention in 2011, made a fatal mistake by abandoning his nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that Hussein, who was deposed in 2003, doomed himself by allowing the United States to build up its forces in neighboring countries before the Iraq war. Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons both as a deterrent against invasion and as a part of its strategy for repelling one.

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