2017 Year in Review - North Korea

By: James Brown

North Korea’s Nuclear Milestones
2017 was a milestone year for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.  These tests launched North Korea and its infamous brand of brinkmanship back onto the world stage, and reignited long simmering tensions between North Korea and the United States and its regional allies.  The following represents a sample of the most noteworthy advancements in North Korea’s weapons program this year:
  •       In July, the successful launch of two ballistic missiles showed with relative certainty that North Korea was capable of striking parts of the United States.
  •       In September, North Korea completed an underground test of a nuclear bomb, with yield estimates ranging from 108 to 160 kilotons, or roughly the equivalent of seven to ten times the blast size of the bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima during World War II.  This is estimated to be the most powerful nuclear bomb North Korea has tested to date.
  •        In November, another successful missile launch, this time of a more advanced model, indicated that all of the U.S. mainland fell within range of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

Kim Jong Un’s Reinvigorated Quest for Nuclear Weapons
Experts in 2017 seemed to agree that Kim Jong Un’s dogged pursuit of nuclear-capable ICBMs is intended not only to secure a seat at the negotiating table, but to ensure his own continued existence.  The logic behind this rationale is illustrated by the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, the late leader of Libya who, after agreeing to nuclear disarmament in 2003, was ousted from power and summarily executed by rebel troops after a NATO military intervention in 2011.  That turn of events, experts say, has both driven Kim’s quest for nuclear expansion and made him drastically less likely to disarm in the face of threats of military action.

Donald Trump and the U.S. Response
2017 was a notable year in U.S. – North Korea relations for another reason: Donald Trump.  Unlike past U.S. presidents, Donald Trump has enthusiastically engaged in North-Korean-style rhetoric, including threatening in front of the U.N. to “totally destroy” North Korea if need be, and promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump has also taken to the unprecedented strategy of publicly undermining his own diplomats to bolster his expressed view that diplomacy has been, and will continue to be, ineffective.  However, despite President Trump’s more bellicose tendencies, key players within the Trump administration appeared to favor a more even-keeled response to denuclearization.  It remains to be seen whether the seemingly chaotic clash of approaches displayed by the Trump administration is more indicative of an impulsive, disorganized leader, or a 3d chess-master playing “good cop, bad cop” and bluffing his way to a denuclearized Korean peninsula.