North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been called many things — crazy, mad, insane, and “rocket man” — because of his program to build nuclear bombs and missiles capable of launching the weapons to the US.
But experts say he is not crazy to want a nuclear arsenal. And Kim Jong Un doesn’t necessarily want nukes due to a desire to use them on the US or any other country, contrary to what bellicose political rhetoric might suggest.
“He is not crazy. He has consolidated control over that country in a very effective and ruthless manner,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told Business Insider. “He’s just willing to do really terrible things to protect himself, which I think tells us something about the credibility of their nuclear threat.”
Such a threat is indeed the purpose of the weapons, Lewis says, but almost certainly not their end goal.
“If I were Kim Jong Un, I would want nuclear weapons, too,” added Lewis, also who publishes Arms Control Wonk, a site about nuclear arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation.
Here are the most likely reasons why Kim Jong Un wants a nuclear arsenal.
The US has a track record of breaking its word with rulers
A watershed moment for US-North Korean relations occurred during the administration of George W. Bush in the mid-2000s.
“They very sincerely tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Lewis said. (The talks came after questionable accusations that North Korea was cheating on an agreement not to pursue nuclear materials production.)
But one of the problems the Bush administration ran into was the US track record with Iraq, formerly led by Saddam Hussein.
“How do you assure the North Koreans, when they sign a deal, that they don’t end up like Saddam? Because Saddam had actually given them the WMDs, and we still went ahead and said he had them, and we still went ahead and invaded [Iraq],” Lewis said. “They realized they had to find a way to convey to Pyongyang that, if they went ahead and gave up their nuclear program, we wouldn’t invade them.”
So Lewis said that the Bush administration pointed to a disarmament agreement with Libya and its ruler at the time, Muammar Gaddafi, and how the US continued to hold up its end of the bargain.
“I know why they did it at the time, it was the right decision,” Lewis said. “But we had a disarmament deal with that guy, we told the North Koreans to go look at how well things had worked out with Libya — and then we turned around and toppled the Libyan government.”
These foreign policy decisions happened during the rule of Kim Jong Il — the father of Kim Jong Un — but his son has not forgotten them.
“Kim Jong Un, I think, is fearful of ending up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi,” Lewis said. “He is terrified that we will do to him what we did to them, and has decided that nuclear weapons are the best way to ward that off.”
It’s unlikely North Korea has nuclear and thermonuclear weapons as reliable as those in the US arsenal, if the country has deliverable weapons at all. But Lewis says this doesn’t really matter in the big picture.
“Every military system has developmental problems and issues, and maybe not work as well as it should,” Lewis said. “But they have all of the skills and expertise in place, and they’ve demonstrated the vast majority of things.”
He added: “If tomorrow, they were going to put a nuclear weapon on a missile and fire it at my house, and you asked me, ‘How do you like your odds?’ I would say, ‘I don’t like my odds at all.’ … This is now a serious-enough capability that we have to start assuming, on a bad day, a lot of their stuff is going to go well.”
But nuclear weapons as a stick against the US is not the only reason North Korea wants them.
A risky play for better diplomacy?
Some reports suggest Kim Jong Un wants to use nuclear weapons to strong-arm South Korea into reunifying with North Korea. Lewis doubts this is true, though does say Kim Jong Un is “insatiable” for power.
“I am sure, if given the choice between controlling North Korea or North Korea and South Korea, he would clearly prefer to control everything,” Lewis said. “I don’t think, though, that this explains their nuclear behavior.”
That may be because Kim Jong Un’s ability and capacity to take over South Korea — at least not as a smoldering crater — is virtually nil. Lewis also said North Korean isn’t building the kinds of nukes “that would be consistent with that goal.”
What is possible if not even likely — and perhaps surprising to many Americans — is that North Korea may see obtaining nuclear weapons as a way to improve its relations with other countries, including the US.
Lewis has studied the history of China’s nuclear weapons program, and it has many similarities to North Korea’s path toward nuclearization.
China set off its first nuclear device in 1964 during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and — two years later — launched a live nuclear warhead atop a missile to prove the capabilities of its program. The US view of these events during the Cold War was grim. But over time something shocking transpired.
“If you had gone into Lyndon Johnson’s office in October 1964 and said, ‘The Chinese are about to test a nuclear weapon,’ he would have said, ‘That’s terrible,'” Lewis said. “But if you would have then said, ‘No no no, it’s great — this is really going to improve Chinese security, and as a consequence of that, China is going to reorient its foreign policy, and they’re going to become anti-Soviet and pro-American, and we’re going to have a diplomatic relationship with them.'”
Lewis continued: “Johnson would have asked you, ‘Really? What president is going to go to China and meet with Mao Zedong?’ And you would have said, ‘Richard Nixon.’ Then he would have thrown you out of its office and said you were an idiot.”
But that is exactly what happened: When China’s proven nuclear capabilities deterred US military action and opened the door for increased local aggression or international diplomacy, China chose the latter.
“The reason it happened is because the people who wanted nuclear weapons in China also wanted a better relationship with the United States,” Lewis said.
His point is to suggest that North Korea’s motivations, notwithstanding its horrifying human rights abuses, may not be so nefarious as rhetoric and propaganda suggest when it comes to nukes. In fact, it could be that North Korean nuclear scientists see themselves more as doves than Hawks.
But the country’s murky future direction is ultimately up to its leader.
“It is possible that the North Koreans will take the security they are given by these weapons and spend it on being awful — sinking more South Korean ships, shelling more South Korean islands, initiating more crises,” Lewis said. “It will depend on how the North Koreans choose to act now that they have this capability. They could be easier to get along with, they could worse.”
Instead of always assuming the worst, Lewis thinks we should all practice being “more neutral” about how having nuclear weapons might change the country.
“I don’t want to be optimistic, because it could really, truly go either way; North Korea could become more aggressive, North Korea could become less aggressive. But we should wait and see,” Lewis said. “You don’t want to pre-judge something like that and foreclose what could be [an] … offering at peace.”
But this does not appear to be current US thinking, as President Trump hopes to expand nuclear weapons capabilities while American military forces appear to be quietly training to face a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.