Kim Jong-un is focused first and foremost on managing his country’s lingering food crisis. But that doesn’t mean the thirty-seven-year-old dictator has any intention of siphoning off resources from North Korea’s weapons programs. He made that abundantly obvious this week, when Pyongyang conducted its second ballistic missile test using hypersonic technology in four months. According to North Korean media, the missile traveled 435 miles to the east, hitting the designated target.

The response to the latest test was predictable. South Korea called an emergency meeting to discuss the launch. The US State Department quickly issued a statement to reporters...

Kim Jong-un is focused first and foremost on managing his country’s lingering food crisis. But that doesn’t mean the thirty-seven-year-old dictator has any intention of siphoning off resources from North Korea’s weapons programs. He made that abundantly obvious this week, when Pyongyang conducted its second ballistic missile test using hypersonic technology in four months. According to North Korean media, the missile traveled 435 miles to the east, hitting the designated target.

The response to the latest test was predictable. South Korea called an emergency meeting to discuss the launch. The US State Department quickly issued a statement to reporters reminding them that the tests are a violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions (as if North Korea cared). Secretary of state Antony Blinken called his Japanese counterpart, foreign minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, to assure him the US-Japan alliance was “ironclad.” And the experts who make a living on analyzing the technical aspects of North Korea’s missile program got to work, describing the most recent testing event as an indication of Pyongyang’s seriousness in acquiring the ability to evade US ballistic missile defenses.

The media coverage thus far has focused primarily on the North Korean missiles themselves. Weapons analysts inside out and outside of the US government continue to pore over data to decipher every minute detail of the latest projectile: the length of the missile itself, its distance, the diameter of the nose-cone, the fuel used and the type of hypersonic glider employed. The most important question, however, is getting lost in the ether: what is motivating Kim to enhance his country’s missile program?

Admittedly, this strikes as a fairly obvious, if not simplistic, question. But it also strikes at the core of how the US should be approaching North Korea as it crafts its strategy toward the country. When seeking to analyze the threat North Korea’s missile (and nuclear) program represents to the US, we must determine not only the capability of the program but the intent that drives it.

This is not some theoretical or academic exercise. A so-called threat to national security is not merely about capability, but also about the purpose of that capability. Many countries have top-tier militaries with sophisticated bomber aircraft, naval destroyers and cyber weapons. Some even have nuclear weapons. But if those countries don’t intend to use those weapons against the US, then the overall threat assessment is low. France, for instance, has one of the most formidable militaries in Europe, can project force to other continents rapidly when it needs to, and possesses nearly 300 nuclear warheads. But nobody in the US worries about France’s military capabilities because the French aren’t about to order an invasion of the US mainland.

Of course, North Korea isn’t France. It’s a lot easier for US officials to brush capability aside when assessing a US ally or partner. North Korea is neither. The concept, however, still stands. We may be disturbed about Pyongyang’s decision to repeatedly break UN Resolutions, rollout new ballistic missiles during military parades and make the resumption of diplomacy more difficult by engaging in periodic missile testing, but none of this adds up to a truly direct and imminent threat to Americans. Why? Because as bizarre as Kim can sound sometimes, he appears to know where Washington’s red-lines are and has demonstrated a knack for avoiding things that will jeopardize his own personal survival.

Technically, Kim already has the capability to do significant damage to the roughly 80,000 US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea. Technically, he could wake up one morning and decide to use this capability. But realistically, Kim isn’t stupid or reckless enough to order a decision like this because doing so would unleash a torrent of US, South Korean and Japanese retaliation that would make Kim’s original decision look wholly idiotic. At the end of the day, Kim Jong-un wants what all dictators want: to rule unchallenged for decades until, at age 100, quietly and comfortably slipping into the afterlife. Needless to say, instigating a war with the most powerful country on the face of the earth would be a perplexing way to accomplish this. Taking steps that lead you to a quick, painful death is not exactly great for longevity.

This analysis goes against the grain of the conventional Washington, DC boilerplate, which tends to depict North Korea and its leadership as borderline crazy, capable of doing anything, anywhere, at a moment’s notice.

But just as this kind of threat-inflation whips us into an unproductive, emotional frenzy, so does hyperventilating about North Korea’s military hardware without accounting for the reason behind the new, flashy objects. And the reason is more about deterring a foreign invasion than acquiring the means to launch an offensive attack against the US or its allies in the region — one bound to cut short the Kim family’s seven-decade rule over the North.

Policymakers need to stop viewing North Korea as suicidal and start viewing it as a rational actor whose ultimate objective is self-preservation. Only through a realistic analysis can Washington begin to form a North Korea policy that actually works.