Why North Korea succeeded at getting nuclear weapons

North Korea was considered too poor, authoritarian and vulnerable to succeed with its nuclear and missile programs. And yet Pyongyang has acquired advanced nuclear weapons capabilities — and, at the end of November, tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Why has North Korea succeeded when other countries such as Iraq and Libya have failed?

Three factors are central to North Korea’s success. This analysis draws on findings about the North Korean program from a recent New York Times article, as well as my recent book on the Iraqi and Libyan nuclear programs.

1. Kim Jong Un made nuclear weapons his top priority.

Authoritarian leaders may appear to pursue nuclear weapons with determination, but not all do so wholeheartedly. After succeeding his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011, Kim Jong Un made advanced nuclear weapons and their means of delivery his main goal. He redirected resources to the missile project, promoted science as the regime’s main priority, and carefully aligned his public image with science and scientists.

In contrast, my research shows that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi only inconsistently set developing nuclear weapons as their priorities. Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 — a time when the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was nearing a breakthrough. Had Saddam not invaded Kuwait at that crucial moment, bringing on the attention and opposition of the United States, Iraq would most probably have had nuclear weapons by the mid- to late 1990s.

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