While the World Was Looking Elsewhere, North Korea Became a Bigger Threat

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a groundbreaking ceremony for a construction project in Pyongyang, Noth Korea, in this picture released by the Korean Central News Agency on February 24, 2024.    KCNA via REUTERS     (via REUTERS)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a groundbreaking ceremony for a construction project in Pyongyang, Noth Korea, in this picture released by the Korean Central News Agency on February 24, 2024. KCNA via REUTERS (via REUTERS)

Summary

Kim enlarged his nuclear arsenal and built ties to Russia, no longer aiming for reunification with South Korea. The U.S. and its allies are alarmed.

SEOUL—In March 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walked out of a massive hangar wearing a bomber jacket and dark sunglasses. He pointed to the sky and launched his biggest missile yet.

“This miraculous victory is a priceless victory," Kim said.

It was classic North Korean theater. But behind it were developments that together have made Kim’s regime a genuinely more capable and more threatening antagonist. Its ability to unleash some form of nuclear attack on the world has never looked so credible, so prone to misperception and so resistant to dissuasion.

Kim has developed new weapons in the past five years designed for regional warfare and seen Russian soldiers recently use some of them in fighting with Ukraine. In January, he abandoned hopes of reunification with South Korea and embraced more combative goals. He has given up on talks with the U.S. after President Biden took office, and his ongoing courtship of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to visit Pyongyang soon, elevated North Korea on the global agenda higher than it had been in years.

The dictator has exploited a fractured global order to harden North Korea into a menacing nuclear state—a potent new complication for a world already enmeshed in wars in Europe and the Middle East.

Kim is playing a longer, more strategic game with a nuclear arsenal that has quickly grown since talks broke down at the February 2019 summit with former President Donald Trump in Hanoi. That has made predicting his next steps murkier and more worrisome.

Particularly troubling, security experts say, is how sure-footed Kim looks, despite widespread food shortages, a more confrontational South Korean administration and a U.S. that is rotating nuclear assets into the region more often.

At the 2022 weapons launch, Kim oversaw North Korea’s first full-range intercontinental ballistic missile test in nearly five years. In the past, Russia and China would have condemned the behavior at the United Nations. But Beijing and Pyongyang had grown tighter over their shared animosity toward Washington, and North Korea just weeks earlier had become one of the few countries to publicly back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Pyongyang has ripped off eight more ICBM tests. The U.S. has tried more than a dozen times at the U.N. Security Council to condemn or punish the Kim regime. Each has failed.

For decades, officials often interpreted Pyongyang’s moves through the prism of a well-established “provocation playbook," where weapons tests and bellicose language helped drive urgency around the world for talks with the regime. Kim and his predecessors used that attention to elevate the country’s global standing and win aid or sanctions relief by promising to halt its weapons activity, often covertly plowing forward anyway. But Kim has ditched that convention.

Now, Kim is developing his nukes more with an eye to keeping them than trading them away, even if it means living under sanctions. He is also rewiring dynamics inside the regime to share authority and create a more normalized government, and adjusting his relationships with allies by increasing the reliance on Russia, said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership who has been a consultant for the U.S. government.

The shift in tactics is difficult to see given Pyongyang’s self-isolation and adversarial relationship with Washington, Gause said. “Kim Jong Un is his own man at this point," he said. “The problem is many people can’t see North Korea changing."

Dropping reunification

A clear sign of Kim’s new bravado emerged last month, as he abandoned a foundational doctrine of his predecessors. Taking to a lectern at his country’s cavernous parliament hall, he stood beneath towering statues of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

In a fiery speech, Kim Jong Un declared his regime would no longer seek peaceful reunification with Seoul. Instead, South Korea should be codified as the main enemy. He ordered the country to prepare for war. Pyongyang’s iconic “Arch of Reunification"—built by his father in honor of his grandfather—was torn down.

“Once a war becomes a reality facing us," Kim said, “We will never try to avoid it."

What a war or conflict could mean in Kim’s eyes has drawn rising concern from officials in Washington, Seoul and elsewhere.

Pyongyang has crammed more weapons advances in the past five years than during any similar stretch in the country’s history, said Kuyoun Chung, a policy adviser for South Korea’s navy, foreign ministry and unification ministry.

Yet an all-out invasion carried out by North Korea looks highly unlikely, with Kim himself ruling it out in his policy speech. North Korea has also reduced its arms reserves of late, sending munitions and short-range missiles to Russia for fighting with Ukraine, according to U.S. and South Korean officials. And in recent weeks, North Korean soldiers have been spotted re-mining the Demilitarized Zone, according to people familiar with the matter, which would be an odd move ahead of a land attack.

But Washington and Seoul officials say they remain concerned about the potential for lower-scale skirmishes between the two Koreas, including drone infiltration or maritime incursions, especially in the Yellow Sea or western border areas.

Waning support among Americans for the war in Ukraine and Israel’s efforts in Gaza might give Kim the impression that the U.S. is overextended and exhausted, said Sydney A. Seiler, a former U.S. envoy for six-party talks with North Korea in 2014 and 2015. Kim could be harboring hopes that following a threat—or even limited use—of nuclear weapons against South Korea, international pressure might build to quickly de-escalate, forgo retaliation and allow North Korea to extract financial gains for peace, Seiler said.

“Then North Korea’s dreams are coming true," said Seiler, who also served as a former National Intelligence Officer for North Korea. “Kim would come to the negotiating table as a victor."

A pair of former U.S. officials surmised that Kim had made the strategic decision to go to war in an article last month on 38 North, a website dedicated to North Korea news. Kim may have concluded Washington will never accept his country as a legitimate state and wants to eliminate it, said Robert L. Carlin, a former U.S. negotiator with the North and one of the authors. Pyongyang may believe that any agreements, including those with Seoul, may not be sustained anyway, he said.

Kim’s nonmilitary options might be exhausted, and his goals likely now extend beyond sanctions relief given the strength of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, he added. “Every surprise attack worked by definition," Carlin said. “I hear over and over again: ‘They won’t use nuclear weapons.’ Well, that’s what they want us to think."

North Korea could possess 50 to 60 nuclear warheads, according to an assessment by Siegfried S. Hecker, Carlin’s co-author. Five years ago, Hecker and others estimated Pyongyang’s stockpile at roughly 35.

“What worries me the most is they’ve continued to increase the size and sophistication of their nuclear arsenal and delivery means," said Hecker, who in the past has visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities as an international inspector.

As the world grows more militarized, Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile and know-how pose proliferation risks with other rogue actors. It’s a corner Kim could uniquely own: North Korea is the only state to have carried out a nuclear test this century.

Accepting life under sanctions

Founded in 1948, North Korea’s dynastic Communist state has outlasted the Soviet Union’s nearly 70-year run. As a father to three young children, Kim has suggested to U.S. officials in the past he doesn’t want nuclear weapons to be a burden to his offspring.

After taking power in late 2011, Kim had paid homage to his father’s policies on the military and economy, and packed on more than 100 pounds to physically resemble his grandfather. His initial leadership legitimacy had centered on a promise of delivering economic revitalization.

To cater to Pyongyang’s elite, Kim built a modern water park and a dolphin aquarium. He erected luxury apartments. He approved more incentives for farmers and backed more autonomy for small businesses.

Kim spoke of aspirations to make North Korea a “peace-loving nuclear power." Ahead of nuclear talks with Trump in 2019, he had halted weapons launches and dismantled parts of a key testing facility as a diplomatic goodwill gesture. He hoped to win a deal with the U.S. that shed sanctions, reopened his country’s economy and invited foreign investments, in exchange for disarmament on his own terms.

The abrupt collapse of the talks brought major disappointment to Kim. State media stayed silent about the breakdown with Trump for a week. A documentary crew that Kim had brought with him to Hanoi ended up stuffing its 78-minute film with scenes from Kim’s uneventful state visit to Vietnam. Archived footage of his grandfather even got used as filler.

Within weeks, Kim began changing tactics.

North Korea restarted activity at its ICBM factory and rebuilt parts of its main rocket-launch site. Kim met Putin in Vladivostok, where the North Korean leader blamed the U.S. for acting in bad faith. In May 2019, missile tests started again.

Unlike the prior spree of nuclear tests and long-range weapons launches, North Korea prioritized developing new, sophisticated missiles that could terrorize neighboring South Korea and Japan—a missing part of the regime’s arsenal. The new missiles, dubbed KN-23 and KN-24, can be nuclear equipped and change direction midflight.

Those weapons are now used by Russian soldiers in the war in Ukraine, according to assessments by Washington, Seoul and Kyiv. “The North Korean weapons are getting target practice in Ukraine, and Russian feedback on the weapons’ shortcomings will allow North Korea to advance its technology even more," said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean brigadier general who was a negotiator at inter-Korean military talks in 2007.

Kim closed 2019 with a defiant speech that warned his nation to accept the reality of a protracted fight with the U.S. “We have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces," Kim said.

Covid-era strength

When Covid-19 emerged in neighboring China, North Korea became one of the first countries to slam its borders shut, in January 2020. Cross-border trade, key to the North’s prepandemic economy, soon evaporated.

Kim took unprecedented control of the country’s society, economy and information. He no longer needed to cater to the country’s nouveau riche, and he centralized growth back to the state.

In 2021, he pulled off his biggest leadership shake-up in a decade, excising those he deemed disloyal or corrupt. He handed subordinates more authority, which also meant he could deflect blame to them for the country’s struggles.

He also tightened screws on his people: Watching or distributing South Korean movies became a crime punishable by firing-squad execution—and several violators were killed that way, according to human rights groups.

Kim’s strongman moves reflect how he’s still trying to overcome the broken promise to his people of winning sanctions relief while holding on to the country’s nuclear weapons, said Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean prison camp escapee who heads a human-rights group in Seoul. “Now he’s being honest that nuclear weapons are the only way for regime survival," Kang said.

To push through his new mandates, Kim made himself a bigger star, seeking to take North Korea’s cult of personality to new heights.

He articulated policy by giving lengthy speeches instead of penning newspaper editorials, as his father did. He introduced a personally-branded ideological doctrine called “Kimjongunism," according to Seoul’s spy agency. His temporary weight loss became the face of North Korea’s Covid-era struggles. He shed tears in public. He even apologized for policy errors.

At a November 2022 ICBM test, Kim unveiled his daughter, Kim Ju Ae, to the public for the first time. Now she is a fixture at marquee North Korea events, with Seoul’s spy agency believing she could be a potential successor. Kim reportedly now refers to the young girl, who is thought to be about 11, as “Morning Star," a moniker that had been reserved for Kim Il Sung.

Beyond the ICBMs, Kim has racked up other military achievements since the Vietnam summit: submarine-fired ballistic missiles, a first-ever spy satellite, hypersonic technology and new ICBM launch platforms. A growing swath of North Korea’s weapons now rely on a type of fuel that makes them more mobile and easier to hide. A second plutonium-producing reactor at the country’s main nuclear site is believed to have recently become operational.

The Kim regime has refrained in one area: carrying out its seventh nuclear test. But Washington and Seoul officials have long warned that preparations for it have been completed.

Since taking power, Kim has carried out more than 200 missile tests. That’s more than triple the output of his father and grandfather combined. “The more flamboyant and fancy his weapons are make it a lot more difficult for countries to take them away," said Soo Kim, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who focused on North Korea.

‘Closest friend’

After years of Covid isolation, North Korea reopened to the outside world by inviting foreign dignitaries from Russia and China to a military parade in Pyongyang last July.

Kim showered more attention on his Russian guest, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, giving him a personal tour of a North Korean weapons expo—including a stroll past the short-range missiles now used in Ukraine. Pyongyang and Moscow have denied the existence of any arms deals.

Kim, who once had a prolific pen-pal relationship with Trump, promised in a letter last summer to continue “holding hands firmly" with Putin.

Months later, the two leaders shook hands in-person at Russia’s main spaceport in the country’s Far East. It was Kim’s first overseas trip since the pandemic. The Russian leader promised assistance on North Korea’s satellite endeavors. In his dinner speech, the North Korean leader admonished the “gathering of evil that claims hegemony and nourishes expansionist illusions."

Before returning home, Kim toured a Russian fighter-jet factory and examined a Russian navy frigate. North Korean train shipments into Russia picked up soon after.

Pyongyang is estimated to have provided around 5,000 containers of weapons to Moscow by the end of last year, and could soon also include the supply of tactical-guided weapons, South Korea’s defense minister recently told local media.

Russia is sending shipments lately with unknown goods into North Korea, too, according to government officials.

A date for a Putin visit to Pyongyang hasn’t been set. North Korea’s foreign ministry said the nation awaits it with great sincerity, saying Putin is the “Korean people’s closest friend."

Write to Timothy W. Martin at Timothy.Martin@wsj.com and Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

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