North Korea didn’t carry out any missile or nuclear tests in 2018 — an apparent vindication of President Donald Trump’s unconventional foreign policy approach.
But that may not be the victory the president claims.
Before and after Trump’s election and inauguration, North Korea was conducting a flurry of nuclear and missile tests.
The drumbeat reached a peak in 2017, when Kim Jong Un’s regime launched its first intercontinental ballistic missiles — theoretically capable of striking the United States mainland. It also tested its most powerful nuclear weapon to date, which it claimed was a miniaturized hydrogen bomb.
Verbal sparring between Trump and Kim escalated and appeared to elevate the threat of a devastating war.
“The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction, nuclear testing has stopped,” Trump told the United Nations General Assembly in September.
The president has pointed to this as evidence that his strategy to defang Kim’s government is working.
However, many experts point out that although the eye-catching weapons display may have ceased, other more subtle parts of North Korea’s weapons program continue apace. Tests are only part of the story.
“Kim has not changed his policy … but claims that he’s now moved from research-and-development and onto mass production,” said Cristina Varriale, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
This transition from testing to production should come as no surprise — it’s exactly what Kim told the world he would do at the beginning of the year.
In his New Year’s Day address, Kim claimed that his scientists and engineers had completed all the trial runs they needed. Now, he said bluntly, “the nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”
At the current rate of production, North Korea could have around 100 warheads by 2020 — almost half the size of the U.K.’s stockpile, according to Robert S. Litwak, senior vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.
Aside from the pause in testing, Trump also takes credit for North Korea’s claim that it destroyed its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri.
However, this demolition is unconfirmed, reversible and even irrelevant in terms of producing more warheads, experts warn.
No promises to break