In the last year alone, North Korea has conducted 20 missile tests and two nuclear tests. That’s a marked annual increase from the 42 missile tests and two nuclear tests of the previous seven years.
It is highly likely that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will launch another intercontinental ballistic missile this year, in part to gauge the response from 45. While some of North Korea’s missile tests have ended in failure, the regime seems to be learning from each launch to improve its capability.
North Korea remains one of the world’s most closeted countries, and international inspectors haven’t had even partial access to its nuclear facilities since 2009.
To slow North Korea’s nuclear advances, the United Nations has imposed increasingly harsh sanctions. Those sanctions have deprived Pyongyang of hard cash but have received spotty enforcement, especially by China, which is wary of squeezing North Korea too hard. Within Congress, there is increasing recognition that North Korea has gotten short shrift amid the intense foreign policy attention on the Islamic State, Iran and the Middle East.
There is doubt that North Korea, as it advances its weapons systems, would launch a first strike on the United States or its allies. Kim is pursuing the weapons program, they say, as a deterrent to a U.S. attack and also to enhance his stature at home.
Yet U.S. officials feel compelled to remind Pyongyang what would happen if it were to strike first. “Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week during a visit to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Given the failure to slow North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, some Asia specialists say the United States should consider a new strategy, attempting to negotiate with Pyongyang on a freeze, or “cap,” in missile and weapons development. Others say such a move would be a disaster, even if Kim abided by a freeze.