Opinion: North Korea is only looking out for itself

Pyongyang claims that its rockets can now reach every corner of the United States. But is that really what Kim Jong Un wants? His sole aim is to maintain his grip on power, says Jürgen Hanefeld.
Jürgen Hanefeld

Four years ago, when Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea's missile program would be successfully completed by the end of 2017, nobody listened. He was scoffed at as a "nut," or "unpredictable." Others discounted his ability to govern, wondering how long he would even be in power? And when Kim announced that North Korea was on its way to becoming a nuclear power two years later, and that he was prepared to negotiate with the United States about disarmament, everyone laughed at him. Yet, now there is much less laughing and every last person must face the fact that the man should be taken seriously.

A historic day?

Jürgen Hanefeld

Jürgen Hanefeld heads the East Asia bureau of German public broadcaster ARD in Tokyo

Of course no one knows whether his rockets are really capable of wiping out New York or Washington, DC. But do we really want to find out? Wouldn't it make more sense to assess the risk rather than to accept it? At this point we cannot know whether Wednesday's missile test will go down as a historic day but it has the makings of one: North Korea has declared itself a nuclear power! That not only means an increased threat, it also presents an opening. Everyone knows that even if North Korean nuclear missiles could hit any place in the US, they could only do it once. After that there would be no more Pyongyang, nor a Korea for that matter – North or South.

So what is Kim really after? He simply wants to protect himself. He wants to cement his grip on power. And that is precisely why he wants to meet with the US as an equal. Not with South Korea, a country he knows the US has on a leash, at least militarily. And not with China, which meanders back and forth between its economic and strategic interests. No, Kim versus Donald Trump is the game that North Korea is putting its money on.

This is about peace

One might be inclined to scream, "What hubris!" But looked at rationally, there is no other alternative. Trump is powerless to do anything — no matter how many aircraft carriers he dispatches and despite his country's colossal military advantage — unless he is willing to put South Korea on the line and eventually risk unleashing a third world war. Wouldn't it be worth sacrificing a bit of his own enormous ego if the US president would sit down and speak with Kim rather than tweeting about him? It would not be the first time that a US president had to sit down with a dictator to get them to behave. Most of the time such meetings with despots are about oil, arms or cash. This time it is about something much more important: Peace.

Conflicts

Major achievement

In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

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Trouble with warheads

At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.

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Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.

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US running out of patience?

Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.

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Testing the boundaries

Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.

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Whole of US within range?

Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.

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One of the world's largest militaries

Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.

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Vast capabilities

According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.

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Enemies all around

Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.

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Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.

   

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