It's time to start worrying about North Korea again

Back in January 2021, at the 8th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim laid out a policy of retrenchment—an end to his experiments with reform, the re-ascension of politics over economics, and the re-assertion of power to meet power. Key to this agenda was an elaborate list of new weapons systems, including nuclear weapons.

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Since then, his weapons scientists have been going down the list, ticking off every project. This started before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. While the public rollout of this effort coincided with the defeat of Donald Trump, who saw Kim in an absurdly rosy light, a 2020 United Nations report concluded that Kim continued his missile activity, without any slowdown, during Trump’s term. Daniel Sneider, lecturer of East Asian Studies at Stanford University, told me, “There hasn’t been a shift.”

The war in Ukraine may have affected Kim’s actions in one sense. The intensifying hostility between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the continued chill with China, has widened his latitude. In May, both Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have levied more sanctions against North Korea for a recent missile test. Both of Kim’s main allies have long been ambivalent about his aggressive actions, but they’re fine with more missile tests if they deepen the insecurity of the U.S. and our allies in the region. (Will their attitudes shift if North Korea resumes testing nuclear bombs? The answer, Sneider says, will tell us “whether Russia and China are still responsible nuclear powers.”)

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