Kim Jong-un became ‘supreme leader’ of North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. He rules what appears to be a very secretive and repressive state, and is considered by many in the West to be the most dangerous man in the world to have his finger on the nuclear button.
It is claimed by many Western diplomats and commentators that Kim Jong-un is acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in order to be able to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States. These people argue that it is only a matter of time until he achieves this capability and must be stopped before he does.
A similar argument was being made until recently with respect to Iran. In that case, it was believed that it would only be a matter of time before Iran acquired the capability to fire a nuclear weapon at Israel, and that as soon as Iran acquired such a capability, that is exactly what it would do.
These arguments are, quite frankly, implausible. Even if Iran were intent on destroying the state of Israel with a nuclear weapon, to do so would almost certainly result in the utter destruction of Iran (by the USA if not by Israel). The same applies to North Korea.
If North Korea were to launch a nuclear attack on the United States there can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that the total destruction of North Korea would follow. Is it really likely that even someone like Kim Jong-un does not know that or would be prepared to take such a risk anyway? Even in a world of hotheads, megalomaniacs and head-in-the-sand skeptics, it does not make sense that political leaders responsible for an entire country would purposely set out to destroy their own country.
What is a more likely explanation for why Kim Jong-un, and his father before him, would be so determined to acquire a nuclear weapons capability for North Korea?
The contrast between North and South Korea in terms of economic development and prosperity could not be greater. South Korea is a hugely advanced, highly industrialized and thriving ‘Asian Tiger’, trading with the rest of the world and closely tied to Japan, Australia, the USA and even China. North Korea, on the other hand, is poor, isolated, technologically backward and highly controlled.
During the 1990s, North Korea went through some very difficult times, including a famine which killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of its people. Floods and drought knocked out 85% of its electricity generation, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union around that time, North Korea was left with China as its only ally and benefactor. Today, even China is tiring of the situation in North Korea, as UN sanctions bite even further into an already bleak and desperate situation there.
Kim Jong-un, however irrational he may be, has one overriding priority, and that is the survival of his country. He believes, for perfectly rational, if nonetheless incorrect, reasons, that nuclear weapons are the key to his survival. It would be surprising for him not to be convinced that the possession of nuclear weapons is an effective deterrent against any country intending to attack or invade North Korea, given all the claims that the US and other nuclear weapon states continue to make on a regular basis about how effective and essential is their so-called nuclear ‘deterrent’.
It would also be surprising for him not to be convinced, given all the claims that the US and other nuclear weapon states continue to make on a regular basis, that the possession of nuclear weapons gives the people of his country a certain status in the world – a status which, frankly, he is unable to give them in any other way. No doubt they would prefer food and electricity and consumer goods, but when those are in short supply, showing off a nuclear weapon or two might just be enough to keep his people happy – and him in power.
The real threat in relation to North Korea is the growing likelihood of a pre-emptive strike against their nuclear weapon facilities by the United States. Not only could this provoke a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula, but the belief that a pre-emptive strike was coming could itself be sufficient to convince Kim Jong-un to launch whatever nuclear weapons he has before he loses them.
“Use them or lose them” is the most dangerous aspect of the nuclear deterrence game. Both the US and Russia already risk losing their most threatening ICBMs before they can be launched if the other side strikes first. This means they must be ever prepared to launch their missiles before they are hit, in a ‘launch on warning’ scenario that leaves precious little time for double-checking whether an attack is really underway. This is the situation facing North Korea right now, and it could lead them into making a very rash and dangerous mistake.
The truth is that there is only one way to stop North Korea – or any other country – from developing nuclear weapons and threatening other countries with them. And that is for the world to agree to eliminate all nuclear weapons. So long as the US and other nuclear weapon states continue to reserve for themselves the right to have nuclear weapons, what justification do they have for saying that other countries do not also have that right?
The verification technology and mechanisms already exist to ensure that no country can ‘cheat’ when all have agreed to eliminate their nuclear weapons. But until there is that agreement in place, there is nothing to stop other countries from developing a nuclear weapons program.
 Whether he is more likely to press the nuclear button than, for instance, Donald Trump, is impossible to know at this point.
 Some say his only priority is his own survival or that of his family, or of the regime. But neither he nor his regime can survive if his country does not.