Geopolitics and North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavor. Working out what the leadership of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is much harder.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from misbehaving.

North Korea got the world’s attention – and Donald Trump’s – when it said on July 4 that it had successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time. The weapon, potentially equipped with a nuclear warhead, could reach Alaska.

Leaders around the world agree that North Korea should be a top priority, but given the reclusive nation’s belligerence, options are scarce. Furthermore, ties between North Korea and its traditional ally China are growing increasingly fraught, as China reduces coal exports to the “hermit kingdom.” As China withdraws, Russia steps in to exploit the crisis by propping up the North Korean regime with energy and technology.