Over the years, we’ve spoken several times about North Korea, including the late Kim Jong-un’s golf prowess, and Bill Clinton’s bid to rescue itinerant US reporters who had strayed north of the border.
Since the end of 2015, the North’s actions have become more disconcerting and the progression toward acquiring very serious weapons has accelerated. Perhaps a recap of recent events is in order:
In December 2015, North Korea test fired a submarine-based missile. It claimed success, but the majority of observers and analysts designated the test a failure. North Korean state media also mention Pyongyang had produced a hydrogen bomb.
In January 2016, North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test – its fourth – which they claimed was a thermonuclear device. Analysts quickly cast doubt, saying the device was more likely similar to the fission-based devices used in previous tests.
February 2016, North Korea launched a satellite. Critics call the launch an excuse to test banned ballistic missile technology.
March 2016, Pyongyang claimed to have miniaturized nuclear weapons to the extent they can fit on the head of a missile. These claims were doubted by analysts.
April 2016, North Korea tested a new high-powered missile engine. They also test-fired a submarine-based ballistic missile. Although the North claimed the launch met all test criteria, analysts and observers remain undecided on whether the test was a success.
If we take the improbable line and believe all of Pyongyang’s claims, the situation is very grim indeed. But it’d be equally remiss to take the critics at face value. The likely reality is that the North’s current capabilities lie somewhere between the two, and one would hope closer to the line taken by the critics.
Several facts we know: Pyongyang has successfully detonated nuclear devices, they’ve successfully fired multistage ballistic missiles, and they have demonstrated a strong resolve to accomplish what they have set out to do – perhaps with covert help from without.
On the few instances when apparent progress has been made (the 1994 freeze on nuclear programs, and the 2007 closure of the Yongbyon reactor), results have come from extended bouts of diplomacy, involving multiple nations. While sanctions may have caused additional discomfort for the broader population of North Korea, they have not had noticeable impact on Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
As recent reports indicate a resumption of excavation operations at North Korea’s main Punggye-ri nuclear test site, re-opening negotiations with North Korea must be edging ever closer to the top of the list of foreign policy considerations for any incoming president.