Why North Korea went nuclear

In July and August 2017, tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles by North Korea sparked inflammatory exchanges with the US – yet, as Nicola Leveringhaus explains, this is just the latest step in the isolationist communist state's attempts to fulfil long-held nuclear ambitions

A soldier and workers are depicted gazing in admiration at North Korea’s first premier, Kim Il-sung, in a propaganda poster. The Kims’ dynastic personality cult shows no signs of diminishing. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In early August 2017, an alarming exchange of threats and accusations began to fly between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, widely known as North Korea) and the United States. Dominating the headlines were statements issued by North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un that his state was considering plans to strike the US Pacific territory of Guam – threats countered by belligerent warnings from US president Donald Trump that American forces were “locked and loaded”, ready to meet any aggressive act with “fire and fury”. The threat of nuclear war seemed closer than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Yet this latest crisis is one that predates the big personalities of Kim and Trump. Certainly, some developments are new and worrisome: both leaders have been unrestrained in their rhetoric, and North Korea is advancing towards nuclear weapons capabilities that could bring the continental US within range. But these developments are not unexpected: indeed, the Kim regime’s love affair with the bomb began in the early days of the Cold War.

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