Why North Korean threat is a more urgent issue for next U.S. President

Story highlights

  • Pyongyang's insecurity has intensified even more under Kim Jong Un
  • The isolated regime has intensified efforts to develop a nuclear strike capability
  • The campaign is aimed to shore up Kim's position at home and win bargaining power abroad

Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions here are his own.

Seoul (CNN)Kim Jong Un has been intensifying his efforts to develop a long-range nuclear strike capability since the beginning of 2016. The more vulnerable he feels atop a weakening North Korea, the more he seeks a silver bullet to ensure the regime's long-term survival.

This dynamic has been in play for decades, especially as North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to compensate for the loss of its powerful patrons in Moscow and Beijing and fell further behind a far more prosperous South Korea.
    But Pyongyang's insecurity has intensified even more under Kim, who, since coming to power in 2012, declared his father's bequest of a nuclear program as a crowning achievement, changed the constitution to declare North Korea a nuclear state, and declared nuclear and economic development as his twin priorities.

    North's nuclear sprint

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    Kim's recent declaration that the North has developed a hydrogen bomb and a failed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test marked the opening of Kim's nuclear sprint in December of 2015. Then came North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January, its long-range missile launch in February, the unveiling of a miniaturized nuclear warhead and announcement of successful atmospheric reentry tests of a rocket warhead in March, and then tests of the mobile ground-launched Musudan missile along with another SLBM test in April. Kim has also announced that North Korea will soon conduct its fifth nuclear test.
    Kim has timed North Korea's nuclear sprint to coincide with internal and external objectives. First, he set the date for an historic seventh conference of the Korean Worker's Party for May 2016. Second, Kim used international condemnation under UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and the holding of annual U.S.-ROK Key Resolve/Foal Eagle military exercises in March and April as further justification to intensify his nuclear push.
    The third reason for North Korea's nuclear dash may be influenced by the U.S. political calendar. The Obama administration's main tool to blunt North Korea's crisis escalation tactics has been an approach known as "strategic patience." An underlying premise enabling such an approach for the last eight years has been the knowledge that North Korea's pace of nuclear and missile development was not rapid enough to enable Pyongyang to be able to directly strike the United States with a nuclear weapon on the Obama administration's watch. As a result, the White House could use pressure to slow North Korea's program while pushing Pyongyang to return to denuclearization talks.

    Priority for next president

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    But the next U.S. administration is likely to see the North Korean threat as a more urgent priority because the North may indeed develop a long-range nuclear strike capability within the next four years. Such a development will enhance North Korea's leverage and demands for talks but will also generate greater pressure on the next U.S. President to consider decisive action, possibly including military options.
    This prospect provides Kim with an incentive to pursue a nuclear sprint, both to lock in capabilities that will enhance North Korea's deterrent against the United States and to seal North Korea's status as a nuclear power in any future international negotiations, such as the North's proposal for peace talks in exchange for cessation of military exercises -- but not in exchange for denuclearization.
    If North Korea conducts another nuclear test, there are few additional non-military measures the international community can pursue, and North Korea is counting on China's desire for stability and for a strategic buffer to protect North Korea against externally-imposed measures for regime change.
    On May 6, Kim may enjoy a Korean Worker's Party conference that will celebrate his achievements and consolidate his rule. He may even think that his nuclear deterrent has bought time and saved money that can be used to improve North Korea's economy. But the regime's own systemic need to generate instability as a primary means of exerting domestic political control guarantees that the young leader will never have enough nuclear weapons to achieve absolute security.
    Editor's note: Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions here are his own.