north korea missile launch sub confirmed hancocks nr_00003610.jpg
KNCA
north korea missile launch sub confirmed hancocks nr_00003610.jpg
Now playing
02:36
Sub-fired missile test: N. Korea's most frightening move yet?
Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/Getty Images/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
Now playing
01:27
North, South Korean leaders to meet again
Airbus Defense and Space
Now playing
01:44
New images show N. Korea dismantling test site
CNNI
Now playing
00:40
Pompeo dismisses N. Korea's 'gangster' comments
SINGAPORE - JUNE 12: In this handout photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic U.S.-DPRK summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the historic meeting between leaders of both countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying hopes to end decades of hostility and the threat of North Korea's nuclear program. (Photo by Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images)
Handout/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
SINGAPORE - JUNE 12: In this handout photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic U.S.-DPRK summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the historic meeting between leaders of both countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying hopes to end decades of hostility and the threat of North Korea's nuclear program. (Photo by Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:56
Kim Jong Un snubbed Mike Pompeo, source says
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09:  National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09: National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:34
Bolton: US has plan for denuclearizing N. Korea
Planet Labs Inc.
Now playing
01:25
Satellite images show missile plant construction
CNN
Now playing
01:14
Susan Rice: Kim Jong Un beat Trump at summit
Images of the Norrth Korea missile launch on November 28 taken from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official newspaper.
From Rodong Sinmun
Images of the Norrth Korea missile launch on November 28 taken from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official newspaper.
Now playing
02:14
Will North Korea restart nuclear tests?
Photo Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
03:00
Will Kim Jong Un ever give up his nukes?
Photo Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
02:27
What's bringing Kim Jong Un to the table
Now playing
01:51
Who is Kim Jong Un?
CNN
Now playing
01:43
Connolly: Trump comment on Kim 'jaw-dropping'
Now playing
02:31
Moon: The masterful dealmaker
Trump Kim Jong Un comment 04240218
CNN
Trump Kim Jong Un comment 04240218
Now playing
01:26
Trump: Kim Jong Un very open and honorable
Now playing
03:06
Finding art on the edge of the DMZ

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

Editor’s Note: 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.

Why this North Korea test is not like the others

North’s nuclear sprint

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.

Timeline: North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

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

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.

South Korea, U.S. in ‘largest ever’ military drill

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