The Politics of North Korea's ICBM Program


Jan 2, 2024

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a policy speech at the second-day sitting of the 5th Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released on September 30, 2021, photo by KCNA via Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a policy speech at the 5th Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly of the DPRK in Pyongyang, North Korea, photo released on September 30, 2021

Photo by KCNA via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on January 1, 2024.

In another world, it would be reasonable to expect North Korea to rank among the strongest and wealthiest countries across the dimensions of national power, just like its neighbor, South Korea. After all, the North Korean people are in many ways similar to their South Korean counterparts in terms of talent, capability, determination, resourcefulness, and so forth. It's hard to believe now, but fifty to sixty years ago, North Korea was the industrial powerhouse of the peninsula. Even today, the North reportedly possesses roughly $8 trillion of untapped mineral deposits.

It is, therefore, one of the world's serious anomalies that North Korea is, at best, a third-world country. It is unable to provide adequate food and healthcare for its people or reliable electrical power for its economy.

Why? The failure of the Kim regime to provide for its people lies in its insatiable appetite for nuclear arms. The regime does not seek prosperity and a good life for its people, conditions which would allow the North Korean people wide access to outside information and resources to elude regime control. Instead, the regime seeks survival through brutal and pervasive population control and repression. It also seeks dominance over the ROK. Achieving such dominance would not be an easy task for the North as few ROK citizens would want to be immersed in the poverty and misery suffered by the North Korean people.

How does the North Korean regime explain this misery to its people? It claims that it is in part the fault of their inveterately hostile enemy, the United States. The regime even argues that the United States wants to invade North Korea. Therefore, the regime must build a substantial military equipped with defensive nuclear weapons. The acquisition of these weapons and the missiles required to deliver them is meant to demonstrate to the North Korean people that the regime is a powerful player on the world stage. In addition, the regime's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of threatening its enemies are some of the few successes that the regime can claim. This makes it extremely unlikely that the regime would ever commit to giving them up.

North Korea's ICBMs also play an important role in its objective to dominate the ROK. While for decades, the ROK and the United States have anticipated that North Korea would seek to achieve that goal by repeating its 1950 invasion of the ROK, the North knows that such an effort would be extraordinarily risky. The United States has threatened (PDF) that the regime will not survive if it uses nuclear weapons. But equally of concern to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is that if his forces invade the ROK, they will be exposed to a mass of outside information that could jeopardize his regime from the inside. Indeed, Kim even labels K-pop a “vicious cancer” that could undermine his regime.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.

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