North Korea shocked the world in the early morning hours of July 4 by launching a ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland — but North Korea has long had the ability to make and detonate nuclear devices.
But North Korea does not sell, export, or use such nuclear devices on anyone because if they did, the consequences would be phenomenal.
"North Korea sells all kinds of weapons" to African countries, Cuba, and its Asian neighbors, according to Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm.
"The most dangerous aspects of that trade has been with Syria and Iran in terms of missiles and nuclear reactors they helped the Syrians build before the Israelis knocked that out with an airstrike," said Lamrani. "The most frightening is the potential sale of nuclear warheads."
Image from Wikimedia Commons
With some of the harshest sanctions on earth imposed on North Korea, it's easy to imagine the nation attempting to raise money through illegal arms sales to the US's enemies, which could even include non-state actors, like al Qaeda or ISIS.
While procuring the materials and manufacturing a nuclear weapon would represent an incredible technical and logistical hardships for a non-state actor, a single compact warhead could be in the range of capabilities for a non-state actor like Hezbollah, said Lamrani.
Furthermore, the US's enemies would see a huge strategic benefit from having or demonstrating a nuclear capability, but with that benefit would come a burden.
If US intelligence caught wind of any plot to arm a terror group, it would make every possible effort to rip that weapon from the group's hands before they could use it. News of a nuclear-armed terror group would fast-track a global response and steamroll whatever actor took on such a bold stance.
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as THAAD, in South Korea. (DoD photo)
And not only would the terror group catch hell, North Korea would, too.
"North Korea understands if they do give nuclear weapons, it could backfire on them," said Lamrani. "If a warhead explodes, through nuclear forensics and isotope analysts, you can definitely trace it back to North Korea."
At that point, North Korea would go from being an adversarial state that developed nuclear weapons as a means of regime security to a state that has enabled and abetted nuclear terrorism or proliferation.
This would change the calculus of how the world deals with North Korea, and make a direct attack much more likely.
Right now, North Korea has achieved regime security with long-range nuclear arms. If they sold those arms to someone else, they would effectively risk it all.