By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 21 (Yonhap) -- A decade after taking power, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boasts significant progress in menacing nuclear and missile programs -- a pivotal element of his regime's security in the face of the close-knit South Korea-U.S. alliance, analysts said.
Since rising to power right after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011, Kim has pushed for a full-throttled security drive that has culminated in refined nuclear capabilities, long-range missiles and other formidable weapons like submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and a hypersonic one.
His focus on the military front, however, could come with a caveat: the pursuit of security against external threats -- at the expense of people's livelihoods -- could fuel public discontent and internal instability, the analysts pointed out.
With the North's weapons programs in high gear, Seoul and Washington have been striving to chart a diplomatic path to end those programs. But the allies' peace offensive has yielded little tangible progress amid the North's deep-seated distrust toward them.
"Over the past decade, the North Korean leader has made great strides, focusing mostly on strategic weapons like nuclear and long-range missiles," Kim Yeol-su, senior fellow at the think tank Korea Institute for Military Affairs, said.
"The North used to fear a possible U.S. attack. But with these strategic weapons under its belt, the North might think that it has achieved at least a minimum level of deterrence against its perceived threats," he added.
A key milestone in Kim Jong-un's security crusade came in November 2017, when the North's leader declared the completion of the "state nuclear force" following a test of the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-15 capable of striking the continental U.S.
Questions still remain over the North's atmospheric reentry technology for its ICBMs. But its evolving missile program has spawned worries that the United States might not come to the aid of South Korea in a contingency for fear of an attack on its mainland.
Kim has also gone into overdrive with his project to "miniaturize, lighten and standardize" nuclear warheads. Under his leadership, the North carried out four nuclear tests from 2013-2017.
The 2017 test, which the North claimed to be of a hydrogen bomb, raised eyebrows in Seoul and Washington, as it marked a sign of palpable progress in its nuclear program. The country's first two atomic tests took place in 2006 and 2009 each when his father was in power.
Experts have already started to call the North a "de facto" nuclear power, given that countries like India and Pakistan are believed to have completed the development of nuclear bombs following five or six major tests.
Kim's preoccupation with the weapons programs has apparently been driven by his abiding sense of threats from the U.S., as evidenced by Pyongyang's persistent calls for Washington to drop "hostile policy" toward Pyongyang.
"Kim has been doubling down on his security campaign, with an initial, urgent focus on strategic weapons like nuclear arms for deterrence against the U.S.," a Seoul-based security expert said, requesting anonymity.
"Later, he started focusing on tactical-level weapons like shorter-range yet powerful missiles to achieve military superiority on the peninsula," he added.
The North's nuclear program appeared to have slowed when the Moon Jae-in administration's policy initiative for enduring peace on the peninsula accelerated in the wake of two inter-Korean summits and the first-ever summit between the U.S. and the North in 2018.
But nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have hit a deadlock since their Hanoi summit in February 2019 ended without a deal -- a result of the two sides having played hardball with little willingness to cede ground.
Pyongyang later shifted to a more provocative tack. It has test-fired a series of shorter-range missiles, including SLBMs. The SLBM is a formidable nuclear delivery vehicle that can launch a stealthy retaliatory strike even after surviving a preemptive attack.
The latest SLBM test in October indicated the country's technological advances, as the North claimed to have fired it from a submarine rather than a floating barge or a rudimentary underwater structure.
South Korean military officials are also said to presume that the North had used a submarine as a launch platform in the latest test, whereas it previously assessed that the North had yet to master the SLBM technology, which is widely regarded as another "game changer" in regional security.
The North's missile launches over the past years have highlighted its pursuit of diverse launch platforms, including underwater structures, mobile launchers and even trains -- an indication it has enhanced the survivability of its missiles.
During a key session of the ruling Workers' Party in January, the North also unveiled its push to develop "multi-warhead" rockets, unmanned striking equipment and other high-tech weapons systems.
The North Korean leader's emphasis on security might have channeled already scarce resources into military reinforcements, while the general populace's economic travails show no signs of easing amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic sanctions, analysts said.
"With the limited state funds funneled into the military, people might grow disgruntled with poor infrastructure and the absence of welfare services, which would after all become a destabilizing factor for the country," Kim of the Korea Institute for Military Affairs said.
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