SEOUL – The resolute commitment of the Kim Jong-un regime to become a nuclear power capable of striking the United States was boosted in 2017 by the coming to power of Donald Trump, whose threatening tone has sparked the most tense atmosphere the Korean Peninsula has witnessed in decades.
This year Pyongyang has more than underlined the message it sent in 2016, when it made a record number of nuclear tests (2) and missile launches (24).
In addition, the incendiary tone Trump has taken in response to each action of Pyongyang, which has threatened to destroy the US and whose administration has hinted at the possibility of an invasion, might have served to further harden North Korean resolve.
Trump’s bluster, both online and during public speeches, has contributed to worsening military escalation in the region – the largest in six decades – fueled repeatedly by Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests.
Aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, fighters and bombers were deployed this year near the Korean peninsula at a rate not seen since 1953 when overt hostilities during the Korean War ended.
This growing mobilization led Pyongyang to threaten to launch missiles into the ocean near Guam, a small island administered by the US in the Western Pacific that hosts American military bases, and to make public even an attack plan and a possible date to execute it.
Regarding his weapons program, Kim had already warned on Jan. 1 that the country was finalizing its development of an intercontinental ballistic missile that would be able to carry a nuclear warhead and reach US soil.
And again this year Pyongyang has surpassed the forecasts of even the most skeptic analysts thanks to numerous missile tests.
The North Korean regime closes the year having set several milestones, such as successfully testing its first medium-range missile with solid fuel (which burns longer than liquid fuel) or having fired its first ICBM, the Hwasong-14 on July 4.
After testing a second Hwasong-14 missile later that month, North Korea once again shocked the experts by launching the Hwasong-15 on Nov. 29, an even more advanced ICBM that left the international community united in the opinion that Pyongyang is less than one year away from building a weapon capable of striking the US.
The fact that repeated weapons tests earned the hermit country a record number of UN sanctions approved in a year, underscores even more its unconditional commitment to becoming a full nuclear power.
Whether or not to regard North Korea as a truly nuclear state is now on the table in Washington and will be part of the future of the crisis, in which China, North Korea’s main trading partner, will play a key role, especially at a time when Beijing seems willing to grab its neighbor by the scruff of its neck but has not shown any intention of strangling it.