Key point: A North Korean nuclear attack is neither imminent nor likely.
North Korea has achieved something remarkable: for an impoverished country with a GDP smaller than that of Rhode Island, it has built a nuclear and ballistic missile program. The result is a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons with an expanding level of reach. While North Korea’s nukes are in all likelihood meant for regime security, in the event of war, Pyongyang would attempt to deliver devastating nuclear strikes against American, South Korean and Japanese forces throughout the region, sapping them of the willpower necessary to topple the regime of Kim Jong-un.
North Korea is both more and less dangerous than it looks. While the country maintains a 1,190,000-strong armed force, one of the largest in the world, much of its equipment is obsolete. It is likely no longer likely capable of successfully invading South Korea. At the same time, it is assessed as having between ten and twenty nuclear weapons, and has tested a variety of ballistic-missile platforms, including medium-range, intermediate-range, submarine-launched and, as of July 4, intercontinental ballistic missiles. While many of these programs have had mixed success, particularly the Musudan missile, North Korea is clearly learning and advancing its abilities both in nuclear-weapons design and missile-delivery systems.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons are no longer useful in an offensive role, so the obvious next use is to preserve the regime of Kim Jong-un. Much like Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi, Kim Jong-un in part justifies his regime by his opposition to the United States. At the same time, however, he wants to avoid their fate. Nuclear weapons guarantee Kim security and freedom of action within his own country.