SEOUL Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are spiraling ever higher as Pyongyang continues its drive to develop nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
The most recent sign of escalation came on Aug. 29, when North Korea fired a missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean off the northern island of Hokkaido. The last time a North Korean projectile flew over Japan was in February 2016. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the latest incident represented "a serious and grave threat of an unprecedented level."
This threat, however, has been decades in the making: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's frenzied efforts to arm his impoverished country with nuclear missiles has its roots in his grandfather's thwarted ambitions.
LESSONS OF WAR Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, invaded the South in 1950, starting the Korean War. In 1965, the Great Leader talked about a "second" war in his speech at a ceremony celebrating the founding of the Hamhung Military Academy, according to Yun Duk-min, professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. The academy was established to train engineers for developing special weapons.
"If a second Korean War begins, the U.S. and Japan will again intervene. In order to prevent them from doing so, we need long-range rockets that can strike their hearts," Kim said.
He had learned a bitter lesson from the war, which lasted until 1953. His army was on the brink of conquering the entire Korean Peninsula when U.N. forces, led by the U.S., came to South Korea's rescue, repelling the invading army in a counteroffensive launched from Busan, a city on the southern coast of South Korea. The American forces were deployed from U.S. bases in Japan.
The U.S. military played a pivotal role in thwarting Kim's plans to unify the peninsula under his communist regime. Since then, in addition to its ICBMs, North Korea has been developing medium-range missiles designed to hit U.S. bases in Okinawa, Yokosuka, Misawa and other parts of Japan, as well as Guam, where U.S. strategic bombers are based.
Should another war break out, North Korea would use its medium-range missiles to cripple any U.S. military facilities in the region that could be used to support U.S. and South Korean forces.
Under the Great Leader, his son Kim Jong Il and now his grandson Kim Jong Un, the North has for half a century spent huge amounts of money and harnessed the country's best and brightest in its pursuit of missiles and nuclear arms. These arms programs continued even while the country was experiencing mass famines that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Pyongyang's recent missile tests, including those that ended with the projectiles falling into Japan's exclusive economic zone, are believed to have been simulations for attacks against U.S. bases in Japan. In August, North Korea announced a plan to lob missiles over Japan toward Guam.
WISHFUL THINKING A former senior official of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party who defected from the country says the West has seriously underestimated the speed at which Pyongyang is developing advanced weapons.
The West's forecast that it will take the North three more years to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs is a "joke," according to the former official. North Korean engineers don't just work "nine to six," he said, as none of them are willing to go home at normal hours and risk severe punishment -- even death -- for failing to achieve their targets.
Kim Jong Un has ordered that preparations for war -- including completion of a nuclear-powered submarine -- be finished by Sept. 9, 2018, when the country will celebrate its 70th anniversary.
After the country's test-firing of an ICBM in July, Kim visited the mausoleum of his father and grandfather, where he posed for commemorative photos with people involved in the development of ICBM technology.
On Aug. 26, North Korea fired several short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast as the U.S. and South Korea conducted annual joint military drills.
Aug. 25 is the Day of Songun, a holiday celebrating the military leadership of Kim Jong Il, father and predecessor of Kim Jong Un. A number of ceremonies and events were held that day in Pyongyang and elsewhere across North Korea. The missile launches on the following day are believed to be the dictator's attempt not only to enhance national prestige but also to cement his citizens' respect amid growing tensions with the U.S.
SHARED HISTORIES Forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile ambitions will require the full cooperation of China and Russia, but the two countries have shown few signs of playing ball.
Experts from the former Soviet Union laid the foundation for the North's missile and nuclear arms programs, with Pyongyang paying lucrative salaries to Soviet nuclear scientists who had lost their jobs after the USSR collapsed. North Korea's Musudan medium-range missiles -- capable of reaching Guam -- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles are all based on Soviet technology.
According to a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the U.K., North Korea's rapid progress in developing ICBM technology may have been aided by black-market purchases of RD-250 liquid-fueled rocket engines. These powerful engines were probably sourced from a Ukrainian factory with former ties to the Soviet Union's missile program, the expert said.
Experts also say engines based on the RD-250 may have been used for the Hwasong-12 medium-range missile, which was test-fired in May, and the Hwasong-14 ICBM, which the country launched twice in July.
The Hwasong-12 is the missile that Pyongyang plans to fire at Guam.
In a TV program aired on Aug. 13, South Korean Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk said the North has yet to master missile re-entry technology for its Hwasong-14 missile, citing U.S. and South Korean intelligence. "We don't feel they've reached that point yet, but it's true they are approaching it," he said. "We can't pinpoint the exact timing, but it will take at least one to two more years."
Given North Korea's zeal for its missile program, this estimate may also be too conservative.