On April 21st 2018, following a four month pause in missile and nuclear tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced a permeant end to all testing and the immediate closure of the country’s nuclear test centre. He stated that the program to develop a nuclear deterrent was complete, and that "under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission.” With North Korea having succeeded in both miniaturising nuclear warheads and in developing both intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking almost anywhere on earth, and complementary shorter range platforms for tactical use to deter conventional attacks from U.S. forward bases in the Pacific, the country has reached an excellent position from which to refocus its attention away from defence and towards economic development. In light of the declaration of a new ‘Byungjin Policy’ in 2016 by the country’s ruling Worker’s Party, which prioritised the development of nuclear weapons and of the national economy in parallel, the successful completion of the nuclear deterrence program is set to facilitate lower defence spending and a greater focus on economic modernisation in future.
Having successfully tested a miniaturised hydrogen bomb, a powerful intermediate range missile, the Hwasong-12, a submarine launched nuclear capable ballistic missile, the Pukkuksong-2, and two intercontinental range platforms capable of striking cities across the United States mainland, the Hwasong 14 and Hwasong-15, North Korea has become a major nuclear power with capabilities exceeding those of a number of established nuclear armed states including Pakistan, Britain and France - which lack similar delivery platforms for their nuclear arsenals. 2017 saw a record number of new high end weapons enter service, with the country's deterrence capabilities revolutionised within months due to a series of consecutive successful weapons tests. Pyongyang’s decision to cease further tests therefore hardly represents a major compromise to its weapons program, but rather a cumulation of the program and a tacit announcement of a final success and victory despite significant pressure to halt weapons development.
With the country’s call to halt testing having been hailed by a number of parties including South Korea, China and the United States, Pyongyang is likely to seek the lifting of the United Nations’ economic sanctions imposed under the pretext of stripping the government of funds for nuclear weapons development, imposed under U.S. drafted resolutions in response to a number of weapons tests. With the vast majority of international criticism having been directed at the country for testing weapons rather than for simply possessing them, external pressure on the country may well subside in response to the Pyongyang’s pledge to halt weapons testing. While expansion of North Korea’s arsenal may continue with more Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-12 missiles and nuclear warheads being built, conspicuous testing of new weapons which could be deemed provocative is set to cease entirely.
Ultimately Marshal Kim Jong Un's statement indicates that Pyongyang perceives itself to be secure from attack, with the nuclear program having begun in response to threats made against the country by the United States in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse which escalated in the early 2000s. North Korean state run media outlet KCNA reported that the country’s leader had declared that the would never use nuclear weapons unless there is a “nuclear threat or nuclear provocation” against North Korea and “in no case will proliferate nuclear weapons and nuclear technology.” The report further stated that Pyongyang would go on to concentrate its efforts towards building a strong socialist economy, mobilising the human and material resources of the country to “dramatically” raise people’s quality of life.
Based on this, a new phase in the country’s history can be said to have begun. This will likely be marked increased foreign investment particularly from neighbouring China and Russia, improved relations with South Korea, and further reductions to the country’s conventional forces, which collectively will be key to facilitating the economic growth the country's leadership has long hoped for. With the country’s economy having continued to grow at a respectable rate despite the most severe sanctions ever imposed in UN history having seriously undermined a number of key industries, the potential for growth in future remains enormous. As one high ranking diplomat and longtime Pyongyang resident stated regarding the country’s potential: “This country, after the sanctions and with the skills that they have, they are making miracles… What if they were not under sanctions? They would do even more.” While the complete lifting of International sanctions, particularly those imposed by Western powers, remains unlikely, the relaxing of UN sanctions to facilitate improved economic relations with neighbouring countries could well be all North Korea needs.