U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign to cut North Korea’s economy off from the world worked. But it also may have accelerated Kim Jong Un’s efforts to build a military less reliant on foreign support.
The North Korea awaiting President-elect Joe Biden is more dangerous and more self-reliant, possessing at least three different intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to a U.S. city. Kim has over the past two years test-launched a range of new rockets to threaten allied forces closer to home. He’s built a fleet of special trucks needed to deploy such nuclear-ready weapons around the country and is believed to be constructing a submarine to put them to sea.
Kim could flaunt his advances again in the coming days — whether in his traditional New Year’s Day address, or with a more provocative weapons test — as an early signal to Biden that past American strategies have failed. Much of Kim’s new hardware has been domestically developed and produced, according to non-proliferation experts, despite sanctions crimping his access to everything from weapons and industrial machinery to oil and foreign cash.
There’s no indication Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign caused Kim to rethink his weapons program, even if it helped push North Korea toward what’s expected to be its biggest economic contraction in more than two decades. “Sanctions appear to have had little, if any, effect in slowing down the DPRK’s drive for fissile materials and nuclear weapon production,” said Siegfried Hecker, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and one of the few American scientists who has participated in in-person inspections of North Korea’s main nuclear facilities.
Kim, 36, can expect to complete his first decade in power in December 2021 having demonstrated a proficiency for producing nuclear arms far exceeding his father or grandfather. That capability will make it harder for Biden to maintain the U.S.’s longstanding demand that Kim dismantle his entire nuclear program, rather than simply freezing it.