The medium-range missile North Korea tested in late June, known as a Musudan, had failed in all five of its prior launches. Last month’s launch, while not a categorical success, showed progress — one of many hard-won breakthroughs.
“We are coming to the realization that North Korea is filling some of the technological gaps we thought they had and erasing some of the question marks quicker than we are comfortable with,” Ms. Berger said.
North Korea appears focused on acquiring key nuclear capabilities, including, Ms. Berger said, “a demonstrated ability to strike the continental United States.”
John Schilling, who tracks North Korea’s weapons programs at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, has concluded that within the next decade, North Korea will probably produce a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach parts of the West Coast of the United States.
The country is also developing multiple ways to deliver these missiles, as indicated by Saturday’s submarine test-launch.
“They’ve just solved one of the key technical challenges to making a mobile I.C.B.M.,” Mr. Schilling said, referring to a kind of launcher that is harder for adversaries to find or target because it can be moved on large trucks.
Multiple launch systems are considered an expensive but crucial component of any serious, field-ready nuclear weapons program, underscoring the magnitude of Mr. Kim’s ambitions.
An extreme solution
As analysts adjust their view of North Korea’s intentions, they are grappling with a much bigger question: Why is North Korea so bent on a program that brings economic sanctions, the risk of conflict and isolation even from China, its sole remaining ally and benefactor?
Put another way: What does North Korea believe it will gain from nuclear weapons that is worth these costs?
Experts have not settled on a consensus answer, but offer a range of possible explanations. What these theories share is a sense that North Korea’s leadership believes it is facing a potentially existential crisis and is willing to take extreme steps to survive.
Some analysts say the North Korean warnings of a looming conflict with the United States and South Korea might not just be for show, but rather indicate that the country’s leaders earnestly believe war could be coming.
In this view, the country would need more than just a single bomb to deter its enemies. It would require a nuclear program large enough to make such a war winnable.
Details about North Korea’s advances suggest the outlines of a war plan, Mr. Lewis said. The country seems to be building the capability to launch rapid nuclear strikes against nearby military targets, such as the United States military bases on Guam and the Japanese island of Okinawa, as well as South Korean ports where any American invasion force would land.
“I think their hope is that the shock of that will cause us to stop,” Mr. Lewis said. “Then the whole point of the I.C.B.M.s is that there is something in reserve” to threaten West Coast American cities, in theory forcing the United States to stand down.
Mr. Fitzpatrick argued that even if North Korea does not intend to carry out such a plan, it hopes that raising concerns of a nuclear conflict will “drive a wedge between the United States and its allies,” particularly South Korea.
Should North Korea acquire a nuclear-capable missile that could hit Washington State, some Americans might well question the value of continuing to guarantee South Korea’s security.
“The North Koreans would like people to doubt that the United States would trade Seattle for Seoul,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said, referring to a Cold War adage that the United States accepted risks to its own cities so as to defend those of its allies.
B. R. Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea, takes this theory one step further. The nuclear program, he believes, is meant not only to scare off the United States, but to one day coerce the South into accepting the North’s long-stated demand: reunification on its own terms.
“It is the only goal big enough to make sense of a nuclear program that has made the D.P.R.K. less secure than it was 10 years ago,” Mr. Myers said, using the abbreviation of North Korea’s formal name.
North Korea’s greatest source of insecurity, he argued, is not its enemies abroad — whose efforts at rapprochement it has long spurned — but its own looming crisis of legitimacy.
Because the country positions itself as the true protector of the Korean people but is so much poorer than the South, it has “no reason to exist as a separate state,” Mr. Myers wrote in a recent research paper. Unification “is therefore the only long-term solution to the regime’s chronic security problems.”
While such scenarios may sound outlandish, Mr. Lewis pointed to the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq and NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, which led to the grisly deaths of those countries’ leaders. North Korea is far weaker than its enemies, whom the country sees as bent on its destruction. And it faces a possible legitimacy crisis of the sort that seems to topple another government every year.
These fears, analysts say, could be spurring Kim Jong-un to drastically change his country’s behavior — upending long-held assumptions in the process.
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