Kim Jong Un has done a good job keeping the United States guessing about his next nuclear provocation. North Korea had threatened that it would pursue a more hardline “new path” by the end of last year unless the United States dropped its “hostile” policies toward the country. This was followed by promises of a “Christmas gift” in December, which was widely speculated to be the test of a more advanced long range missile system. Kim most recently announced that North Korea would no longer be bound by its own limits on long range missile and nuclear testing, and stated that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon” system soon.
Some experts have been concerned that the United States is on the cusp of losing its last chance to prevent a real nuclear threat from North Korea. Former national security adviser John Bolton, for instance, tweeted only a few weeks ago that the United States needs to act fast before North Korea “has the technology to threaten the American homeland.” Others, though, including apparently some officials in the administration, view the lack of a “Christmas gift” as a demonstration of the success of President Trump.
But these concerns miss the broader point that the nuclear threat from North Korea is already here. The days when North Korea was thought of having a handful of nuclear weapons that may not be deliverable with a missile are over. The bigger issue is how the United States and its allies need to adapt to rapidly expanding North Korean nuclear capabilities.
While Trump is right that North Korea has not tested a long range missile since his first summit with Kim back in 2018, North Korea has been busily advancing other elements of its nuclear deterrent. Kim has continued to churn out more nuclear warheads and missiles during this interim period. According to one estimate in 2018, he had as many as 60 warheads, and his stockpile has likely grown since. The pace of North Korean missile testing also kept up with some of the most aggressive years on record.