North Korea fired another missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean on Friday. The pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests has accelerated dramatically over the past two years—particularly recently. Even as global sanctions are tightened, and Washington warns of “fire and fury,” Pyongyang appears unrelenting in its drive to demonstrate a viable nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the continental U.S.
The general assessment is that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is either crazy, asking for war (which may be the same as crazy), or provoking its enemies—though toward what end is rarely explained. But the true explanation might be simpler: North Korea needs to develop a legitimate nuclear weapons program as quickly as possible.
Even those who argue that the nuclear and missile programs are primarily about regime security—dissuading the U.S. from attacking North Korea or trying to engineer a color revolution in Pyongyang—offer an explanation for the overall program, but not the surge in activity since early last year. After all, since the end of the Cold War, North Korea’s conventional force—its artillery aimed at Seoul—has been enough to dissuade military adventurism by the U.S. And if North Korea weren’t building nuclear-tipped missiles, it is likely Washington wouldn’t be giving Pyongyang the time of day, much less the former intimating that it had the military might to annihilate North Korea.
Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear-armed ICBMs serves a dual purpose—preventing regime change and giving North Korea the ability to reshape the security environment in Northeast Asia. Pyongyang believes it must clearly demonstrate the ability to reach the continental U.S. with a powerful nuclear device, thus convincing Washington that North Korea is too dangerous to threaten and giving Pyongyang leverage to reshape the U.S.-South Korea security alliance. These may be lofty goals, but once North Korea was committed to this plan, they also knew that the final stages of testing would prove the most dangerous time in their entire nuclear and missile program.
The closer North Korea gets to the viable weapon and delivery system, the higher the perception of the security risk by the U.S. And that means that Washington is more likely to intervene—politically, economically, or even militarily—to avoid allowing North Korea to become another nuclear weapons state. Whereas Washington considered the cost of military action in Korea outweighed by any potential benefit of regime change (all the more so because the U.S. intelligence thought North Korea would collapse of its own volition at any moment), the specter of a North Korea in possession of nuclear-tipped ICBMs no longer makes this an obvious calculation. If the U.S. is to act preventatively to stop the North Korean program, it must do so soon.
And so the closer Pyongyang comes to achieving its goal, the higher the risk level for military action. North Korea is in a race against time, hoping to perfect and demonstrate its ultimate deterrent before the U.S. can muster the political will and international support to act decisively to stop the program. It is a race against time, technology, and America’s military might.
Rodger Baker is vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor.