Experts predict that if North Korea continues to carry out nuclear tests, it will succeed in producing nuclear warheads that can be loaded onto ballistic missiles in four to five years. But they believe the chances are low that it will actually use them.
One researcher at a state-run think tank said, "We cannot completely rule out that North Korea will use nuclear weapons, but it will be as a threatening tool."
Yun Duk-min, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said, "When North Korea has nuclear weapons in hand, it will be hard for South Korea to retaliate for military provocations" like the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Yun added, "It is reasonable to think that no rational leader would use nuclear weapons. But the perception that the Kim Jong-un regime, which continues a third generation of hereditary rule, is not rational will amplify the threat felt by the outside world."
Given the wild-card status of the North Korean military, it is unclear who would control its nuclear weapons, and indeed whether there is a clear command structure in place.
Kim Rak-gyom, the head of North Korea's Strategic Rocket Forces, is reportedly leading nuclear and missile tests in North Korea. South Korean intelligence agencies believe that leader Kim Jong-un would have to give the order to launch a nuclear missile to Army chief Hyon Yong-chol.
Hyon would then pass the order on to Kim Rak-gyom, who would press the launch button. But whether that is how it would play out in practice is anyone's guess.