If you were a tiny secretive country, with a wrecked economy run by semi-slaves, and no influence whatsoever beyond your disputed south borders with your far richer nemesis, how would you keep up with the mighty pressure of the most powerful country (and military) the world has ever seen?
Well, you buy insurance, and a nuclear one at that. Kim Jon-un, though relatively young, witnessed in his lifetime what happened to Iraq, Libya and Syria after they gave up their nuclear ambitions. So, contrary to the assumptions in part of the media (‘crazy fat boy’) covering the North Korea imbroglio, Mr. Kim is acting, up to now, as a very rational player.
China, confronted by Mr. Trump to provide a solution on North Korea (NK) - i.e. going against a State it sees as a buffer and ally - while at the same time being challenged over its South China Sea expansionism by the USA, is also acting as a rational player, and doing not much beyond theatrical concessions.
The USA, apparently, is the only country ignoring basic game theory and asking for denuclearization of North Korea as a pre-condition to any further talks, which the chance of happening is the same as hell freezing over.
From the point of view of Mr. Kim, the most pressing objective is to maximize its insurance policy. Not only against the USA and South Korea (SK), but also from any possible betray by China.
In this context, I offer the speculative idea that Kim’s ballistic display of force is not only a theater for foreign and internal observers, but also a ruse.
Kim knows that, when push comes to shove, his atomic arsenal means the chances of a powerful nuclear attack wiping NK out of the map is, now, much higher. The fact that his conventional force is also a great threat to South Korea, given the proximity of Seoul to the border, only adds to the chance of an overwhelming attack, of Fire and Fury, being mandatory if any escalation ever happens.
What’s a small dog going to do in such a big league fight?
Kim knows that every surveillance satellite, stealth wing (drone or airplane) and spy is mapping out the main sites to be nullified in the event of war. I don’t think he hopes to ever deliver any ICBM he may have, as well as a good deal of his conventional arsenal.
So Mr. Kim, if a rational player, can only expect his insurance to hold if he can assuredly deliver a blow even if he is killed by bombs or a China backed coup, and if his weapons and territory are neutered. And that asks for more cunning strategies.
I place at a high probability that, by now, Kim may have smuggled, by land or sea, a few of his former weaker bombs (in the range of 5-10 kilotons) to hideouts in South Korea, a task far easier than building reliable ICBMs. That, and a few elite agents with trucks, is all he needs to make the threat of nuclear retaliation credible, even after his complete defeat.
A surface detonation of a couple of 10kt bombs, in the middle of Seoul, may instantly claim 100.000 lives, possibly 2 or 3 times that after a few days, and economic devastation of a very rich metropolis.
There is nothing new in such strategy, as the nuclear-armed B-52 continual flights the US kept up in the 60’s (in order to assure mutual destruction to the USSR before better ICBMs were in place) tell us. The difference being that, in the Koren case with contiguous borders, it makes all the sense NK should have nukes implanted inside SK.
Maybe a few of those showy missile tests were aimed at covering for a submarine/ship landing in a far away and lonely shore of SK, with a precious load to deliver to a small truck driving out of the shadows.