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World War III: More Truths Unfold About North Korea Nuclear Arsenal





World War III: More Truths Unfold About North Korea Nuclear Arsenal World War III

TOKYO — What does North Korea Kim Jong-un want? That remains far harder to answer than the technical questions about Mr. Kim’s bombs and the reach of his missiles that have preoccupied American, Japanese and South Korean intelligence officials for years.

After North Korea’s underground test on Sunday, more is now known about the power of his nuclear arsenal, even if mystery remains about the veracity of the North’s claim that it detonated a hydrogen bomb.

Yet six years after Mr. Kim took power and began executing those who challenged his rule — sometimes with an antiaircraft gun — there is no issue that confounds analysts more than the motives of a 33-year-old dictator whose every move seems one part canny strategy, one part self-preservation, and one part nuclear narcissism.

The conventional wisdom has always been that Mr. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, is mostly motivated by a deep desire to preserve the family business — a small country that is an improbable, walled-off survivor of Cold War.

But inside the Trump administration, many have begun to question the long-held assumption that his nuclear buildup is essentially defensive, an effort to keep the United States and its allies from finding the right moment to try to overthrow him.

Mr. Kim’s real goal may be blackmail, they argue — the sort that would be possible as soon as North Korean can put Los Angeles or Chicago or New York at risk.

It may be splitting the United States away from two allies — Japan and South Korea — who wonder whether the United States would really protect them, and half-expect Mr. Trump to make good on his campaign threat that he might pull American troops from the Pacific.

Or it may be about making Mr. Kim a power broker, a man Mr. Trump and Xi Jingping — leaders of the two superpowers Mr. Kim is fixated on — must treat as an equal.

Maybe it is about all three.

Very few people outside of North Korea have met Mr. Kim, including his supposed protectors, the Chinese.

Defectors periodically appear in London or Seoul, and offer insights, but few are true insiders. Documents revealed by Edward J. Snowden show that American intelligence agencies broke into the computer systems of the Reconnaissance General Bureau — the North Korean C.I.A. — but they learned more about operations than intentions.

“Anybody who tells you what North Korea wants is lying, or they’re guessing,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “We don’t know what Kim Jong-un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his real end game is? We just don’t have great intelligence into his personal thinking.”

In public statements, the country has made clear that it wants to be accepted as a full member of the international community and that it wants to develop its economy alongside its nuclear program. It has also maintained as a longtime goal the desire to reunify with South Korea — on the North’s terms. Although Mr. Kim makes repeated bellicose threats against the United States and South Korea, such statements are always conditioned on the Americans or South Koreans continuing their “hostile policy’’ against the North.

But none of that explains the pace at which Mr. Kim — more technically savvy and more brutal than his father — has raced in the past year to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can hit multiple targets in the continental United States.

“He wants to demonstrate his ability to put a U.S. city at risk of nuclear attack,’’ Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., said on “Face the Nation” on CBS on Sunday. “That is where he is driving.’’

He has nearly achieved that goal.

The most commonly heard explanation is that Mr. Kim believes that once he can hit Los Angeles, or maybe New York and Washington, the United States would never risk doing to him what it helped do to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the now-deceased Libyan leader.

Mr. Qaddafi gave up all the elements of his nascent nuclear weapons program in 2003, in return for promises of economic integration with the West. That never fully materialized. And as soon as there was an uprising against him, the United States, European allies and some Arab states bombed him. He was found by rebel forces and executed.

But perhaps more than a self-preservation strategy is at work here. Mr. Kim, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers and outside experts believe, thinks he may be able to force the United States to withdraw sanctions and pull back its troops from South Korea, where they are a perennial irritant to Pyongyang.

Where analysts diverge is what he might do if the United States really did withdraw some or all of its forces, as Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, suggested that Washington consider doing. One fear is that it could use its nuclear arsenal as a shield for a military invasion of South Korea in an attempt to reunify the peninsula by force.

The worry, say those who fear the North is considering that option, is that its ability to strike the United States with nuclear missiles could undermine Americans’ ability to guarantee that it would protect South Korea, as well as Japan, from attack.

“If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Based on that calculation, Mr. Lankov said, North Korea “can provoke a conflict in South Korea and then they can just basically put an ultimatum to the United States telling the Americans that if they get involved, they are going to basically get a North Korean retaliation strike.”

Such a conflict would be catastrophic for Asia, and could lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. But it would also undercut every assurance the United States has made to other allies, from NATO to New Zealand, about coming to their defense.

The probability that the North intends to use force to reunify the peninsula, Mr. Lankov said, is “low, but real.”

It is also one of the regime’s stated goals, though one that — in the absence of nuclear weapons — it has never had a realistic hope of achieving. Many believe it is a fantasy, with or without a nuclear arsenal.

“North Korea does not have the power to carry out an all-out war that could last a long time for unification by force,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-funded think tank. “There is no way North Korea, while suffering from food shortages, can liberate South Koreans by force.”

Mr. Kim, Mr. Cho said, “has no intention of putting his words into action.”

He may well be right, but given the miserable track record of anticipating Mr. Kim’s intentions, neither American nor South Korean leaders seem eager to make that assumption. (One senior Trump administration official noted that in 1950, everyone assumed the North was too weak to invade the South, and were wrong.)

“It is important to take Pyongyang’s threat seriously,” said Mo Jongryn, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Yet six years after Mr. Kim took power and began executing those who challenged his rule — sometimes with an antiaircraft gun — there is no issue that confounds analysts more than the motives of a 33-year-old dictator whose every move seems one part canny strategy, one part self-preservation, and one part nuclear narcissism.

The conventional wisdom has always been that Mr. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, is mostly motivated by a deep desire to preserve the family business — a small country that is an improbable, walled-off survivor of Cold War.

But inside the Trump administration, many have begun to question the long-held assumption that his nuclear buildup is essentially defensive, an effort to keep the United States and its allies from finding the right moment to try to overthrow him.

Mr. Kim’s real goal may be blackmail, they argue — the sort that would be possible as soon as North Korean can put Los Angeles or Chicago or New York at risk.

It may be splitting the United States away from two allies — Japan and South Korea — who wonder whether the United States would really protect them, and half-expect Mr. Trump to make good on his campaign threat that he might pull American troops from the Pacific.

Or it may be about making Mr. Kim a power broker, a man Mr. Trump and Xi Jingping — leaders of the two superpowers Mr. Kim is fixated on — must treat as an equal.

Maybe it is about all three.

Very few people outside of North Korea have met Mr. Kim, including his supposed protectors, the Chinese.

Defectors periodically appear in London or Seoul, and offer insights, but few are true insiders. Documents revealed by Edward J. Snowden show that American intelligence agencies broke into the computer systems of the Reconnaissance General Bureau — the North Korean C.I.A. — but they learned more about operations than intentions.

“Anybody who tells you what North Korea wants is lying, or they’re guessing,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “We don’t know what Kim Jong-un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his real end game is? We just don’t have great intelligence into his personal thinking.”

In public statements, the country has made clear that it wants to be accepted as a full member of the international community and that it wants to develop its economy alongside its nuclear program. It has also maintained as a longtime goal the desire to reunify with South Korea — on the North’s terms. Although Mr. Kim makes repeated bellicose threats against the United States and South Korea, such statements are always conditioned on the Americans or South Koreans continuing their “hostile policy’’ against the North.

But none of that explains the pace at which Mr. Kim — more technically savvy and more brutal than his father — has raced in the past year to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can hit multiple targets in the continental United States.

“He wants to demonstrate his ability to put a U.S. city at risk of nuclear attack,’’ Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., said on “Face the Nation” on CBS on Sunday. “That is where he is driving.’’

He has nearly achieved that goal.

The most commonly heard explanation is that Mr. Kim believes that once he can hit Los Angeles, or maybe New York and Washington, the United States would never risk doing to him what it helped do to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the now-deceased Libyan leader.

Mr. Qaddafi gave up all the elements of his nascent nuclear weapons program in 2003, in return for promises of economic integration with the West. That never fully materialized. And as soon as there was an uprising against him, the United States, European allies and some Arab states bombed him. He was found by rebel forces and executed.

But perhaps more than a self-preservation strategy is at work here. Mr. Kim, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers and outside experts believe, thinks he may be able to force the United States to withdraw sanctions and pull back its troops from South Korea, where they are a perennial irritant to Pyongyang.

Where analysts diverge is what he might do if the United States really did withdraw some or all of its forces, as Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, suggested that Washington consider doing. One fear is that it could use its nuclear arsenal as a shield for a military invasion of South Korea in an attempt to reunify the peninsula by force.

The worry, say those who fear the North is considering that option, is that its ability to strike the United States with nuclear missiles could undermine Americans’ ability to guarantee that it would protect South Korea, as well as Japan, from attack.

“If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Based on that calculation, Mr. Lankov said, North Korea “can provoke a conflict in South Korea and then they can just basically put an ultimatum to the United States telling the Americans that if they get involved, they are going to basically get a North Korean retaliation strike.”

Such a conflict would be catastrophic for Asia, and could lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. But it would also undercut every assurance the United States has made to other allies, from NATO to New Zealand, about coming to their defense.

The probability that the North intends to use force to reunify the peninsula, Mr. Lankov said, is “low, but real.”

It is also one of the regime’s stated goals, though one that — in the absence of nuclear weapons — it has never had a realistic hope of achieving. Many believe it is a fantasy, with or without a nuclear arsenal.

“North Korea does not have the power to carry out an all-out war that could last a long time for unification by force,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-funded think tank. “There is no way North Korea, while suffering from food shortages, can liberate South Koreans by force.”

Mr. Kim, Mr. Cho said, “has no intention of putting his words into action.”

He may well be right, but given the miserable track record of anticipating Mr. Kim’s intentions, neither American nor South Korean leaders seem eager to make that assumption. (One senior Trump administration official noted that in 1950, everyone assumed the North was too weak to invade the South, and were wrong.)

“It is important to take Pyongyang’s threat seriously,” said Mo Jongryn, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

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World War III: More Truths Unfold About North Korea Nuclear Arsenal
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