US 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.
Here are four areas North Korea has advanced over the past four years:
1. Nuclear Bombs
While Kim hasn’t detonated a nuclear bomb since 2017, experts believe he has continued to make progress toward developing warheads that could overwhelm U.S. antimissile systems. North Korea “has probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles,” a UN Security Council expert panel said earlier this year. Kim is estimated to be able to produce about six times as much fissile material annually as his father. According to Hecker, Pyongyang has capabilities to make highly enriched uranium, as well as the fusion fuels deuterium and tritium needed for more powerful hydrogen bombs. The device Kim blew up underground in September 2017 was thought to be more than 10 times as powerful as the one the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.
2. Ballistic Missiles
Kim’s regime has rolled out several new models of ballistic missiles in recent months that are either bigger and more powerful or easier to move and fire. At an October military parade through Pyongyang, he debuted a huge ICBM that appeared to be the world’s largest road-mobile missile and capable of carrying multiple warheads. In 2019, North Korea also test-fired the two-stage Pukguksong missile, which demonstrated solid-fuel technology needed to store and quickly launch such weapons before they could be destroyed in an actual conflict. Kim has also tested several hypersonic KN-23 missiles that can strike all of South Korea — including the some 28,500 American troops stationed there — within a manner of minutes.
3. Conventional Forces
The October parade also showcased Kim’s capacity to produce a wide variety of military gear that at least looks modern, including anti-aircraft systems, chemical weapons gear and rifles for its million-man army. Joost Oliemans, a specialist in North Korea’s weaponry, said the mobile missile launchers put on display showed that Kim’s heavy truck industry has made major advancements that also “presumably aided the inception of a flurry of new armored fighting vehicles.” The regime was so proud of its progress that it released a picture book of the armaments in nine languages through its Naenara propaganda websites. Kim has also inspected the production of what appears to be a new submarine capable of carrying its most advanced nuclear weapons.
4. Military Research
The weapons demonstrated North Korea’s capacity to adapt foreign-developed technology to suit its own needs and overcome local limitations. The KN-23 missiles appear to be based on a Russian Iskander with some modifications while the new ICBM unveiled in October looked like a native design. That’s a marked improvement from when North Korea relied on reverse-engineering imported Scuds or help from Pakistani scientists to put it on the path toward uranium enrichment. The regime has likely expanded its capabilities by using openly available information and by rewarding scientists with perks like prized apartments. Kim is nurturing scientists through about 130 government-backed organizations, the Diplomat reported.
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