WASHINGTON – In the next four years, North Korea may join China and Russia as the only countries with the ability to reach the US’s West Coast with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
“Over the past year, North Korea has crossed technical thresholds that were previously thought to be beyond their reach for years,” Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a panel discussion.
“The normally aggressive regime has taken an unusually violent path, even by their own extraordinary standards,” Cha added.
In the last 14 years, Pyongyang was responsible for 16 missile tests and one nuclear test. By comparison, in 2016 alone, the Hermit Kingdom conducted 25 ballistic-missile tests and two nuclear tests.
The acceleration and frequency in testing shows not only the North’s nuclear ambitions but also that the rogue nation has developed something of an arsenal.
Which leaves the obvious question, what does North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ultimately want?
“What does Kim Jong-un want?” Cha said repeating the question. “I think he wants to … he wants a peace treaty with the United States as a nuclear weapons state. I think that’s what he wants.”
“I would add to that, that the North Koreans clearly would like to loosen, if not fracture, US alliances with Seoul and Tokyo, beginning with Seoul, certainly,” said Ambassador Robert Gallucci, the lead negotiator with North Korea in the 1990s in the Agreed Framework process.
“And they will do a lot to achieve that, and including, perhaps, enter negotiations,” Gallucci noted.
“Similar to what Bob said, [Kim Jong Un] also wants China to continue to treat North Korea as a special relationship, not a normal state-to-state relationship,” said Chris Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“And I would add to it also that he wants to be able to maintain total control, a type of government that he has with him as the pure dictator,” said retired US Army General Walter “Skip” Sharp, a former commander of US Forces-Korea.
The panel of scholar-practitioners agreed that the new administration would have to deal with North Korea “almost immediately upon taking office.”
“More often than not, we measure the mettle of presidencies by the unexpected crises that they must deal with. For President Bush, this was clearly the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it completely changed almost every element of his presidency. For President-elect Trump, this crisis could very well come from North Korea,” Cha said.