Whether North Korea tests a nuclear bomb is more a matter of when rather than if.
The timing of that test is the million-dollar question that government leaders, military planners, and people on the Korean Peninsula and beyond are asking of Kim Jong Un — North Korea’s 38-year-old “supreme leader” whose finger is on the button.
In the past two weeks, Pyongyang has conducted seven launches of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, including one that flew over Japan.
In March, North Korea launched a Hwasong-17, dubbed the “Monster Missile” by some.
The largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched by North Korea, the Hwasong cruised at high altitude for more than 67 minutes before splashing down 1,090km (677 miles) away in the Sea of Japan.
Pyongyang defends its weapons programme and missile launches as a legitimate means of defence against what it sees as a decades-old threat from the United States.
The unprecedented number of missiles fired recently has led to an escalation in tensions not seen in several years between North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the US.
An expert on North Korea and its weapons programme, Ankit Panda is currently a Stanton senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
Panda spoke to Al Jazeera about Pyongyang’s missile launches, what Kim Jong Un hopes to achieve, and what the world might expect in terms of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Al Jazeera: The tests we have seen, is this something new or is this a continuation of North Korea’s strategy of many years?
Ankit Panda: Every launch by North Korea is not a test. In fact, this year we’ve already seen more than 40 missile launches if we take ballistic and cruise missiles together. Some of these launches are developmental, which is to say that they are developing new delivery systems and they need to test them to see if they work. And many of the other tests are what I would call operational exercises. So, the spate of exercises we’ve seen in the last few weeks, which has been quite a few, I would say is mostly operational exercises.
We just had a statement from the North Korean foreign ministry, in fact, indicating that these launches of late are reactions to US-South Korea joint exercises, which is also a very familiar pattern. North Korea has done this in the past when the US and South Korea carry out, particularly, field mobilisation exercises.
Al Jazeera: In terms of North Korea’s armaments, what weapons are the most concerning? Are there different levels of concern for different regions?
Panda: I would say that basically, any North Korean delivery system that’s capable of delivering a nuclear warhead is a system of concern, because it can inflict terrible damage against civilian population centres, military targets, so on and so forth.
I think it’s fair to say that the United States might be slightly more concerned with North Korean intercontinental-range missiles, which could, of course, hold at-risk targets in the US homeland. And, by contrast, South Korea might be more concerned with North Korea’s shifts towards tactical nuclear weapons, which would basically reach targets in the southern part of the peninsula in just a minute or two — very, very short flight times.
The North Koreans are hoping to make their nuclear deterrent as credible as possible. They’re qualitatively refining these capabilities and quantitatively expanding their nuclear forces to ensure that the United States and South Korea can’t destroy North Korea’s nuclear forces in their totality — that North Korea would have some ability to retaliate or to otherwise use nuclear weapons to preserve a chance of terminating a conflict on terms that would be favourable to Pyongyang.
Al Jazeera: What is the North Korean arsenal actually like? What are we talking about in terms of warheads and other firepower?
Panda: The best way to talk about North Korea and capability is to, first of all, state upfront that there are uncertainties about the specific numbers of launchers, warheads, so on and so forth. So, I will provide some ranges: I would say that North Korea likely has in the range of 40 to 70 manufactured nuclear warheads. Some of those warheads will be higher yield, thermonuclear weapons, and most of those warheads will be fission weapons with relatively lower — albeit not low in absolute terms by any means — nuclear yields.
I would say, for short- and medium-range systems they would have launchers in the orders of a couple hundred. And, then for intercontinental-range systems, and intermediate-range systems, taking the two categories together, probably somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 launchers total.
So, certainly a substantial number. And I think they will continue to produce more weapons-usable fissile material to produce additional nuclear warheads for these systems.
Al Jazeera: Where is North Korea procuring this technology? First, the intellectual capability required for production, and also the precursor equipment that is required, rockets, etc?
Panda: It’s been a long journey for North Korea getting to the point that they’ve arrived at today. And over the years, they have procured intellectual property and technology from overseas. Just to give one example, their uranium enrichment programme for nuclear weapons very much benefited from the know-how that came from Pakistan, particularly the Pakistani metallurgist, A Q Khan, who proliferated centrifuge technology to North Korea. But, over the years, the North Koreans have established a substantial indigenous base of scientific and technical talent to steward their longer-term ambitions. That means that a lot of the capabilities that we are seeing developed in North Korea today are largely indigenous.
So, over the long haul, North Korea has the capability to continue advancing its delivery systems — the sophistication, the reliability, the survivability of these systems — on its own.
Al Jazeera. Would it be correct to say North Korea’s submarine capability appears to be quite dated?
Panda: I think that’s right. The North Koreans have a lot of submarines, particularly small conventional submarines. Like most nuclear states, they do see submarine-launched delivery systems as a desirable capability and so they are pursuing this. That said, I don’t see the North Koreans really developing a secure second-strike capability at sea anytime soon.
In fact, the closer I think the North Koreans will get to having something like a secure second-strike capability, which is sort of the holy grail for any country developing nuclear forces, will be on land.
Their submarine capabilities, of course, can complicate missile defence, can complicate wartime planning for the United States and South Korea by requiring them to devote resources, for instance, to anti-submarine warfare operations.
But, generally speaking, I would not expect North Korea’s submarine capability to come anywhere close to, for instance, the capability that the United States enjoys with its submarines, which are continuously out at sea and provide the most survivable leg of the US nuclear deterrent.
Al Jazeera: How do you see Kim Jong Un?
Panda: Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that Kim Jong Un is a means-ends rational actor. He does go about seeking the ends that he does in ways that seem rational to him.
Of course, he’s the monolithic leader of a Marxist-Leninist state, and he seeks to keep North Korean society insulated from external influence and ideas, while also preserving his regime and ensuring that his nuclear weapons will allow him to survive over the long haul.
And everything that he does is really in service of those broader strategic goals.
I think he’s also carrying on a long, proud strategic tradition in North Korea that really goes back to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, which is to ensure that the country can survive in a world of great powers — with significantly more capability than North Korea — largely due to North Korea’s own efforts.
The North Koreans talk a lot about self-reliance, but of course, they also benefit from external patronage and support. And in this current moment of great power competition, we do see signs that North Korea is very much aligning itself with China and Russia in opposition to the United States and the rules-based order.
Al Jazeera: Can you compare Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un? Are they different or is there a continuity of strategy? Of approach?
Panda: I would say, at the margins, there are differences between the three Kims. But the bigger picture here is the same, they are overseeing the same project.
Basically, Kim Jong Un, of course, is the North Korean leader that oversaw North Korea’s final flourishing as a full-scale nuclear weapons power — building on the work that his grandfather initiated, and his father carried out.
We also see some differences. For instance, I would say in the realm of proliferation, in particular, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un have approached the issue differently. Under Kim Jong Un, we’ve seen much more proliferation of conventional military capabilities that are somewhat obsolete or outdated, such as the shipment of rocket-propelled grenades to Egypt, which was publicly reported in 2017, and the possible sale now of artillery systems to Russia.
Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea was in the business of proliferating wholesale ballistic missile systems to other countries. And as North Korea has matured as a nuclear power, they’ve been doing less of that.
That said, of course, the Kim Jong Un era is still quite young and Kim Jong Un, relatively speaking, is quite young as well. So over time, we may see Kim Jong Un behave in ways that are perhaps much more in line with what his father did.
I would also say that Kim Jong Un has also borrowed a lot conceptually, particularly from his grandfather. His hallmark Byungjin policy [developing nuclear weapons while prioritising economic growth], which he announced in March 2013, really borrowed an idea that his grandfather had first introduced in the early 1960s, for instance. And we also see evidence that Kim Jong Un presents his public image and persona in the mould of his grandfather.
And, so all of that, I think, tells an interesting story of continuity across the three generations of this Kim dynasty.
Al Jazeera: How should countries engage with North Korea? Is that even possible?
Panda: It takes two to tango. The United States, since Joe Biden came into office, has really been telling North Korea that they are ready to pick up the phone; that they’re ready to talk without conditions. But North Korea has no interest whatsoever in engaging with the United States at this point. The prospects for diplomacy, I think, are frankly quite dim at the moment. The North Koreans are in the process of modernising and expanding their nuclear deterrent. Kim Jong Un just last month said that he would be content to live under international sanctions for decades if he has to. And, so right now, I just don’t really see any prospect of diplomacy manifesting.
The United States also is generally quite distracted.
North Korea is not a top priority at the White House. If there is a North Korea policy for the Biden administration, it’s really focused on reassuring the United States’ allies in Northeast Asia — Japan and South Korea. Engagement with North Korea would require, I think, a significant rethink of what our political objectives ought to be on the Korean Peninsula. And it would require a significant expenditure of political capital that I frankly just don’t see Joe Biden seeking at this point.
Al Jazeera: Because it would require negotiation, of course, and that means concessions.
Panda: Even the concessions that North Korea would want, I think, are very much unclear at the moment. It’s quite possible that the North Koreans are simply… they see the current moment as a great moment of geopolitical realignment in the world with Russia’s war against Ukraine, and systemic rivalry between the US and China. And they might have calculated that instead of pursuing negotiations with the United States and trying to revisit that relationship, which they’ve been trying to revisit for now, really 30 years, their cause is better served by simply doubling down on their relationships with Russia and China.
Al Jazeera: Some argue that North Korea is in some ways a ‘puppet’ of China. Is that a wrong view of the relationship?
Panda: I think, generally speaking, one of the most common fallacies I’ve noticed in how people talk about the North Korea-China relationship is the implication that North Korea is a Chinese client state, and basically takes its marching orders from Beijing. You know, nothing could be further from the truth. The North Koreans, going all the way back to Kim Il Sung, have been deeply sceptical of China.
Of course, the two countries fought side by side in the Korean War and there is a deeply mythologised propagandistic presentation of the China-North Korea relationship.
But, in reality, the North Koreans are deeply sceptical of really any outside force. That said, they of course depend on China practically, and in economic terms. But that doesn’t mean that North Korea’s interests directly align with China. There is a great deal of scepticism there, and we have seen that manifest in the Kim Jong Un era.
Right now, relations do remain quite positive, particularly since Kim first met with Xi Jinping in March 2018. But going forward, I think the North Korea-China relationship will continue to go through ebbs and flows as it has in the past.
Al Jazeera: Short-term, medium-term, and long-term – how do you see it playing out for North Korea? What do you see, potentially, in those scenarios?
Panda: I think in the short term we will continue to see North Korean missile testing, the development of their capabilities, qualitative refinement, quantitative expansion of their nuclear capabilities, and which I also see continuing over the medium term.
I think the North Koreans are very far from being where they would ideally like to see themselves by the end of this decade, for instance, so I think that will continue.
Over the long term, I think, the world will be forced into coexistence with a nuclear-armed North Korea. The stakes are too high, of course, for the United States to directly seek to attack North Korea, which would, of course, be a colossally terrible idea. So over time, I think the US will hopefully revisit the denuclearisation emphasis in its policy and move toward some kind of risk reduction approach where we might even begin to talk to the North Koreans about concepts like arms control.
My hope is that over the long term, we will be able to move in that direction. That said, I think it’s incredibly uncertain. We also need to be open to the possibility of internal shock events within North Korea, perhaps threats to Kim and his regime. Natural disasters causing a nuclear accident or some kind of other incident that could lead to the unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. All of these possibilities, I think, need to be studied carefully. We need to be ready for a range of contingencies with North Korea.
I think managing a nuclear-armed North Korea won’t be easy. It certainly isn’t, of course, the preferred outcome for the United States given the last 30 years of our pursuit of denuclearisation.
But it is the world we’re living in today. The world we’re living in today is one where North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, will continue to possess nuclear weapons for a long time. And so that, I think, deserves special attention going forward.