North Korea is going nuclear rapidly.
A year into his rule, Kim Jong-un, 30, the grandson of the Kim Dynasty, has not only written North Korea's nuclear status into the country's constitution, but also led the Hermit Kingdom one major step closer to a full-blown nuclear-armed state.
Since 1998, North Korea has already developed short- and medium-range missiles and stockpiled enough weapons-grade plutonium for half a dozen nuclear bombs. Pyongyang's successful launch of a long-range missile in December 2012 has turned a hypothetical nuclear power into an emerging reality.
As Kim Jong-un was giving himself a nice year-end present to mark the first anniversary of his succession to power in the secretive country, North Korea's leap forward in mid-December clearly demonstrated that the up-and-coming "North Korea 3.0" is on a credible path to further developing its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, capable of reaching the shores of Alaska and Hawaii.
South Korean government has issued an official warning that the North has developed rockets that can reach the U.S. mainland. "Based on our analysis and simulation," South Korea Defense Ministry announced on Dec. 23, "the missile is capable of flying more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) with a warhead of 500-600 kilograms."
But Kim Jong-un and his generals still seem unsatisfied with their recent missile launch success. Satellite photos indicate North Korea is already in a "state of readiness" for its third nuclear test at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility.
Pyongyang conducted its first and second atomic explosions in 2006 and 2009. A third nuclear test would fit a pattern. "North Korea is thought to have enough plutonium for a handful of crude atomic bombs, and unveiled a uranium enrichment facility in 2010," according to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, "but it must continue to conduct tests to master the miniaturization technology crucial for a true nuclear weapons program. Rocket and nuclear tests unnerve Washington and its allies because each new success puts North Korean scientists another step closer to perfecting a nuclear warhead small enough to put on a missile that could hit the United States."
The three generations of Kims have been no strangers to nuclear brinkmanship, but Kim the grandson's latest series of actions is qualitatively different. With North Korea's long-range missile launch conducted on Dec. 12, and a simultaneous preparation for the third underground nuclear test, Kim Jong-un seems to be betting all his chips on getting the world recognition as a nuclear power and ultimately, a reunification of the Korean Peninsula by force and under his terms.
"Kim is fighting for a place in the nuclear club," writes Shim Jae Hoon of New York Times, "and by doing so, will have the power to demand the withdrawal of American troops from the South. North Korea has not given up the ambition of reunifying the peninsula under its dominance, just as Vietnam was reunified under Hanoi's control. Through repeated nuclear tests, the North seeks to make its nuclear weapons program a fait accompli."
Kim Jong-un's North Korea may be a friendless nation, but it certainly got the world's attention last month when it sent its long-range missile into space. A dictatorial and unpredictable regime is now preparing for another nuclear explosion for true nuclear weapons program. What are the implications for the U.S. and its allies?
Since Clinton administration, Washington has repeatedly stated the United States "will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea." Kim Jong-un's North Korea now has an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. North Korea's effort to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile technology has become a clear and present danger to the United States as well as to the international community.
For the United States and its two key allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, it will be a mistake to assume that they can continue to do business as usual with Pyongyang. "North Korea's military provocations have revealed weaknesses of the U.S. and its alliance partners' military readiness," says Dr. Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "a more expansive strategy is needed to deter North Korea. The United States, Japan, and South Korea now must work together to show the North Koreans that playtime is over."
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.