SEOUL -- North Korea's most powerful missile launch yet and pronouncements that its nuclear program is now complete could be Kim Jong Un's way of calling the U.S. to the table for talks that would secure a guarantee of the continuation of his regime.
The Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile launched early Wednesday morning demonstrated the capacity needed to strike the U.S. mainland, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service. The North Korean leader has gone a step further, declaring his country has at last brought its nuclear weapons development program to fruition.
Some observers are still not convinced the North has obtained all the key technologies, including those to safeguard a nuclear warhead when the ICBM re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. But whether or not Kim's boasts are true, what does the North Korean leader stand to gain from making them?
In the past, Kim has said developing nuclear weapons ultimately enables North Korea to stand up to the U.S., and would keep President Donald Trump from so much as mentioning a military strike on the North. The isolated state's Foreign Ministry has expressed similar goals, saying missile and nuclear development aims to achieve a balance of power with the U.S. and protect North Korea's existence and sovereignty.
Declaring that it has a missile capable of hitting anywhere in the U.S. could let the Kim regime begin talks with American officials as nuclear equals. In return for a guarantee that the regime would be left in place, Pyongyang could offer to reduce its nuclear and missile stockpile. Ultimately, the North aims to push the U.S. military off the Korean Peninsula altogether.
There is also the question of Kim's power at home. In his annual New Year's policy speech for 2017, Kim announced that preparations for the North's first ICBM launch were in their final stage. In next year's address, the leader could tout the completion of the nuclear program as the crowning achievement of his reign, the culmination of an effort stretching back to the time of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
The North seems to be in the midst of a disciplinary crackdown after an elite soldier recently escaped across the border to the South. Meanwhile, United Nations sanctions introduced in September have blocked 90% of North Korean exports by value, dealing a heavy blow to the country's economy that seems to be stirring frustrations among its people. Claiming possession of a working nuclear weapon could give Kim political leeway to put more energy into mending the economy and pursuing foreign relations.
Pyongyang continues to talk tough against the Trump administration. But the Kim regime may now be able to avoid taking steps such as a missile strike on waters near the American territory of Guam or a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean that risk provoking a U.S. military response. That is, if Washington is willing to play ball.