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By Ryan Pickrell
Pyongyang believes nuclear weapons are essential for survival, but the country is paying a heavy price for its “treasured nuclear sword.”
North Korea is believed to spend around $10 billion, roughly one quarter of its gross domestic product, on defense each year. While much of this funding goes into maintaining North Korea’s huge million-man army, a large portion goes into the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
South Korea estimates, based on the limited information available, that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs cost the country somewhere around three billion dollars, according to the Associated Press.
North Korea’s ballistic missiles cost several million dollars apiece, with short-range Scuds running about two million dollars, intermediate-range missiles costing around six million dollars and submarine-launched missiles coming in at a price around $10 million on the high end. Pyongyang has spent well over $100 million testing ballistic missiles, and probably even more developing and producing the missiles for the country’s growing arsenal.
North Korea has tested over a dozen new missiles this year, including short-, medium-, intermediate-, and long-range ballistic missiles, as well as surface-to-air and coastal defense cruise missiles. Since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, the North has tested around 80 missiles.
Pyongyang’s tireless pursuit of nuclear weapons with greater and greater explosive yields and the means to deliver them to distant targets at longer and longer ranges has come at a high price, one even more costly given the tough international sanctions hindering North Korea’s development.
North Korea’s recent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this month, coupled with the development of nuclear warheads, suggests that the North is close to achieving a potentially-viable nuclear deterrence against the U.S. and its allies. Once North Korea achieves its goal, its defense budget may decrease as the country puts greater emphasis on its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals and less emphasis on conventional military power derived from numbers alone, especially considering the poor state of affairs for much of North Korea’s outdated equipment. In return, the North could begin investing funds previously spent on defense into domestic development projects.
Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea has actually experienced economic stability and limited growth, despite constant global pressure in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Pyongyang has also stepped up infrastructure development and the production of consumer goods. At the same time, the country has sacrificed countless opportunities for a positive relationship with the international community and participation in international trade, and the North Korean people have largely paid that price, as the state has largely failed to meet the needs of its people. That is a price that North Korean leadership is more than willing to pay for what they assess is the key to their survival.
“This is expensive, but probably a cost the country can absorb without fomenting much resentment among North Korean elites,” Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told the AP. “In fact, North Korean elites would probably feel less secure without a nuclear program even if its costs relative to the economy as a whole were higher.”
“Putting this in a North Korean perspective, they see themselves as facing the world’s largest single military and nuclear power in a potential conflict,” Rodger Baker, Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform, previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The pursuit of nuclear weapons, then, is intended as a deterrent, to counter their weaker military position.”
North Korea obtains money through a combination of licit and illicit activities. While it brings in several billion dollars through legitimate international trade, the North acquires significant funding through dubious channels — such as slave labor, weapons proliferation, and other criminal endeavors. International sanctions have so far failed to take their toll, but the North Korean financial and trade networks overseas are centralized, limited, and vulnerable — “ripe for disruption,” according to the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.
The international community may need to simply put pressure in the right places.