How North Korea learned to love the bomb


SEOUL: North Korea is the only country known to have conducted a nuclear test this century.

While defence experts are sceptical of Pyongyang’s claim that it detonated a hydrogen bomb on Jan 6, they agree that the latest test still advances its ambition to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

Here’s a look at why joining the nuclear club has become an obsession of North Korea’s leaders from founder Kim Il-sung to his grandson, Kim Jong-un.

North Korea has called its weapons a “precious sword of justice” against invaders. It has drawn comparisons with former dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, arguing that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi fell because they gave up on developing nuclear arms.

It’s also aware of the presence of the US military south of the border. The US has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea, where it houses superior weaponry such as Apache attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets.

“The North Korean leadership has convinced itself that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons,” Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, wrote in a paper last week.

North Korea has a history of using nuclear crises to extract economic concessions. In the early 1990s, it began removing spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, potentially to prepare them for use in weapons, compelling the US to consider a military strike on the facility.

Former US President Jimmy Carter intervened and brokered negotiations that led to US energy aid and security assurances.

After North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, multi-national disarmament talks led to a promise of economic and energy aid in exchange for the shutdown of its nuclear facilities. Pyongyang has since exited the negotiations and re-started the site.

“They like to create a crisis before having any kind of opening up,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

Kim Jong-un had little time to be groomed as successor before the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, and has sought to justify his power with adherence to his predecessor's “songun,” or military-first policy.

Believed to be just over 30, he carried out half of North Korea’s four nuclear tests and has revved up his father’s programme to develop a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking the US.

“Kim isn’t being immature, but smart when he’s making nuclear arms,” Chun Yung Woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator said in comments e-mailed by Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“Securing a deterrent is more important even though it leads to greater isolation.”

North Korea has fallen behind its southern neighbour in its ability to wage conventional warfare as the gap between their economies has widened.

While Kim has more than a million soldiers under his control, much of the military’s hardware is outdated and ineffective. The regime has sought to make up for this by developing submarines, hackers, long-range missiles and nuclear bombs.

The country is estimated to have spent anywhere from US$700mil (RM3.08bil) to US$10bil (RM44bil) a year on nuclear arms development. — Bloomberg

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