• Kim dynasty's fear of collapse at heart of obsession with bomb
  • Nuclear threat creates leverage to gain economic concessions

North Korea is the only country known to have conducted a nuclear test this century. While defense experts are skepticalof Pyongyang’s claim that it detonated a hydrogen bomb on Jan. 6, they agree the latest test still advances its ambition to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

Here’s a look at why joining the nuclear club has become an obsession of North Korea’s leaders from founder Kim Il Sung to his grandson, Kim Jong Un.

A North Korean missile is displayed during a military parade
A North Korean missile is displayed during a military parade
Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Survival

North Korea has called its weapons a "precious sword of justice” against invaders. It has drawn comparisons with former dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, arguing that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi fell because they gave up on developing nuclear arms.

It’s also aware of the presence of the U.S. military south of the border. The U.S. has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea, where it houses superior weaponry such as Apache attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets.

“The North Korean leadership has convinced itself that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons,” Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, wrote in a paper last week.

Map of the explosion site, the Punggye-ri test facility in North Korea, and the region
Map of the explosion site, the Punggye-ri test facility in North Korea, and the region

Economic Concessions

North Korea has a history of using nuclear crises to extract economic concessions. In the early 1990s, it began removing spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, potentially to prepare them for use in weapons, compelling the U.S. to consider a military strike on the facility. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter intervened and brokered negotiations that led to U.S. energy aid and security assurances.

After North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, multinational disarmament talks led to a promise of economic and energy aid in exchange for the shutdown of its nuclear facilities. Pyongyang has since exited the negotiations and restarted the site.

“They like to create a crisis before having any kind of opening-up,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

Legitimacy

Kim Jong Un had little time to be groomed as successor before the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, and has sought to justify his power with adherence to his predecessor’s “songun,” or military-first policy. Believed to be just over 30, he carried out half of North Korea’s four nuclear tests and has revved up his father’s program to develop a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S.

“Kim isn’t being immature but smart when he’s making nuclear arms,” Chun Yung Woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said in comments e-mailed by Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Securing a deterrent is more important even though it leads to greater isolation.”

Falling Behind

North Korea has fallen behind its southern neighbor in its ability to wage conventional warfare as the gap between their economies has widened.

While Kim has more than a million soldiers under his control, much of the military’s hardware is outdated and ineffective. The regime has sought to make up for this by developing submarines, hackers, long-range missiles and, of course, nuclear bombs.

The country is estimated to have spent anywhere from $700 million to $10 billion a year on nuclear arms development. That’s significant for a country with a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, according to the Bank of Korea. The price tag is cheaper than the spending needed to revive its moribund economy, said Park Chang Kwon, a senior research fellow at state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

“Benefits outweigh the costs,” Park said. “The economy can’t be revived in a short period of time, but nuclear bombs can be obtained more quickly with intense investment, and once you’re on track, the costs start to diminish.”

China

North Korea’s nuclear development accelerated in the early 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of its key allies at the time.

North Korea now feels that China, its only major ally, is turning sides by deepening its ties with South Korea. Pyongyang is speeding up nuclear development to reduce its reliance on Beijing.

“North Korea is trying to pull itself out of the shadow of China,” Park said. “China has much less influence on North Korea now. The Kim regime is just too proud of its nuclear weapons to bend to Chinese pressure.”