North Korea has become the latest nuclear power. What will the U.S. do?

North Korea has been test firing rockets about every nine days or so this year, making neighbours nervous. The United Nations Security Council, once vocal in condemning the tests and united in approving tough sanctions, is now distracted by the conflict in Ukraine and, also, divided.

UN Security Council distracted by Ukraine conflict — and divided about sanctions

A woman watches a TV broadcasting a news report about North Korea's launch of three missiles, including one thought to be an intercontinental ballistic missile on May 25. North Korea has done repeated missile tests this year. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Early this year, as Russia was preparing for an invasion of Ukraine, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared to see an opportunity.

With the United States and its allies distracted and busy countering Moscow's belligerence, Pyongyang's generals would put on a show — firing off more test missiles than ever before in such a short period.

That's included two sets of launches since U.S. President Joe Biden wrapped up his visit to the region last month, the first test of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, and 30 other kinds of missiles fired in January alone. 

Ominously, satellite images suggest Pyongyang is now preparing for its seventh nuclear test under a remote mountain in the northeast of the country, as it seeks to further develop deadly explosive "tips" for its missiles. 

A satellite image shows a closer overview of a new excavation activity at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, on April 20. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The United Nations Security Council, once vocal in condemning the tests and united in approving tough sanctions, is now distracted by the conflict in Ukraine and divided. A U.S.-backed resolution for more measures was recently vetoed by Russia and China and further votes don't seem any more promising.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dismissed the tests as North Korea just "trying to get attention." 

Diplomats participate at a UN Security Council meeting on May 11 in New York City, during which recent missile tests by North Korea were discussed. The U.S. is pushing to strengthen sanctions on North Korea after the country carried out its 15th missile test this year. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

But for Kim, they are meant as a demonstration of power the White House really can't ignore. The enigmatic dictator seems determined to live up to the nickname he got from former U.S. president Donald Trump — Rocket Man.

He seems to have now achieved what his grandfather started almost 50 years ago, turning the small, isolated Asian state — one so poor it routinely has trouble feeding its people — into a serious threat to the United States.

'Strategic patience' while facing a nuclear threat

"North Korea is a nuclear power," said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb.

"The North Koreans have shown that they can deliver a nuclear weapon to really anywhere in the continental U.S.," he said, reliably enough that American presidents would "really not take the chance in attacking North Korea in a future crisis." 

This, despite the efforts of several U.S. leaders to stop Pyongyang, from the economic sanctions of George W. Bush, who labelled North Korea as part of the "axis of evil," to Barack Obama, who exercised "strategic patience" by trying to let Kim tire of the program — or bankrupt himself.

Trump's three summits with Kim failed to convince the dictator to give up nuclear missiles in exchange for sanctions relief.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at Osan Air Base as he departs for Japan after his South Korea trip. Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to begin discussions on expanding joint military exercises amid growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. (Kim Hong-Ji/Getty Images)

As for Biden, he seems to be reverting to the policy of "strategic patience." He's offered talks "with no preconditions," an overture that's been ignored by Kim. In Seoul two weeks ago, the only message Biden had for Kim was "hello, period." He said he was "not concerned" about further North Korean testing.

Kim fired off a salvo of test missiles soon after, apparently in response. And there will be more, said Nam Sung-wook, a regional expert at Korea University and analyst with Seoul's National Intelligence Service. 

"Kim Jong-un does not have a real interest in talking right now," he said. "Nuclear negotiations will be very tough, very difficult to settle in the near future."

North Korea seems to be following a familiar script, a cycle where it expends a great deal of money and effort on its nuclear missile program, to see how far it can push the U.S. and South Korea into concessions.

Then, it pulls back. 

Military guard posts of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, are seen in Paju, near the border between the two countries on April 5. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

All the testing plays a "vital" scientific role, said Christopher Green, a crisis group analyst in Seoul. But he says it is often timed to have the biggest impact internationally.

The recent volley of launches has been "designed to raise the stakes a bit, to make sure that the world realized that North Korea was back militarily," Green said.

Evading UN sanctions

Last year, Kim laid out an ambitious plan for the program, promising to add "completely new nuclear capabilities", including smaller tactical nuclear weapons for the battlefield as well as a "super-large hydrogen bomb." Some of the recent missile tests have also been aimed at developing nuclear weapons that can fly closer to the earth and evade detection.

Economic sanctions may have hit the country hard, but to pay for all this Pyongyang has found ways around them. A major strategy has been to launch cyberattacks on global cryptocurrency systems, according to a United Nations Security Council report which concludes that these "remain an important revenue source" for North Korea. 

Other experts have noticed dramatic increases in oil imports through a pipeline from China, which is not subject to a UN-imposed cap on petroleum and could be supplying 3.7-million barrels annually. That's the equivalent of the total amount North Korea is allowed to receive from all sources under UN sanctions.

Army medics involved in medicine supply distribution work amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 22. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

The rapid spread of COVID has been a more immediate problem for North Korea. With no vaccines, treatment or even tests, Pyongyang is estimating its national infection numbers at almost 3.5 million in a country of about 26 million, based on high fever and other symptoms. 

It recently said it is easing lockdowns, but experts suspect that may be due to widespread problems with food availability and not because infection rates are really dropping.

COVID, hunger and poverty are combining into "tough times" for Pyongyang, which may be one reason behind all the missile tests, says Green from Seoul.

"By initiating a testing cycle, showing military strength," he said, "there is a sort of a 'rally round the flag effect,'" with Kim trying to shift the attention of North Koreans away from their daily troubles.

Biden greets the South Korean president during his visit to South Korea. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Whatever the reasons behind it, Biden and newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have vowed to answer North Korean aggression with military moves of their own. 

Trump may have tried to appease Kim by pulling back on joint exercises, but the Biden White House is promising a new toughness, including bolder military drills, more "strategic assets" like aircraft and anti-missile systems to be stationed in the south and a commitment by the U.S. to protect allies like South Korea and Japan with U.S. nuclear weapons if necessary.

"President Yoon and I committed to strengthening our close engagement," said Biden, "and working toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

In response to the latest round of North Korean tests — eight missiles launched by the North — the U.S. and South Korea test-fired eight ballistic missiles of their own into the sea.

South Korean and U.S. missiles are displayed at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea test-launched a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile and two shorter-range weapons toward its eastern waters Wednesday, South Korea said, hours after Biden ended a trip to Asia where he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend its allies. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

A statement by the South Korean joint chiefs of staff said the move "demonstrated the capability and posture to launch immediate precision strikes on the origins of provocations, even if North Korea launches missiles from various locations."

But some question if that will deter Kim or make him even more menacing because he feels threatened.

"Every step to reassure the South Koreans and other allies of ironclad U.S. support makes North Korea more convinced of the need for nuclear weapons," said James Trottier, a former Canadian diplomat who led four missions to Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a politburo meeting of the Worker's Party on the country's COVID-19 outbreak. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

He and other experts say the main reason the Kim dynasty pursued this strategy in the first place is because of the belief that smaller countries without nuclear weapons are more vulnerable to invasion by larger powers, pointing to Libya, Iraq — and now, Ukraine, which gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in an agreement with Russia in 1994.

Trottier says strong reactions create a "provocation cycle," and "North Korea comes out of it with a stronger capacity."

On the other hand, if the U.S. does not show resolve in supporting South Korea, it may push that country to develop nuclear weapons of its own. 

A poll conducted earlier this year found that the proportion of South Koreans favouring the move has grown to 70 per cent, even when the costs and obstacles are considered.

"The South Korean people feel the sword, the threat from Pyongyang," said  Nam Sung-wook, the Seoul intelligence analyst.

"South Korea has conventional arms, North Korea is the nuclear-armed country. It's not a symmetrical situation," he said. "South Korea should go nuclear in order to make the balance."

As far as the UN, U.S. and other countries are concerned, that would be exactly the opposite direction to a peaceful settlement.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.