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North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may have had his best year yet

But the North Korean people continue to suffer.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump spent 2017 mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for being “short and fat,” a “sick puppy,” and “a madman.” For good measure, he repeatedly called Kim “Little Rocket Man.”

None of that should distract from the fact that the North Korean dictator had a very, very good year.

He tested three missiles that can theoretically hit the mainland US, including one that could conceivably hit Washington, DC, or New York. His scientists appear to have overcome a major technical hurdle and created a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on top of one of those missiles, which means he could launch a nuclear attack against major American cities. His military tested its largest such bomb to date, one that was seven times stronger than the bomb America dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, his hackers launched a cyberattack that disabled hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries around the world.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for Kim, who in March and April suffered repeated humiliations of seeing one of his missiles either explode just a few seconds after launch or barely reach their targets. Those failures raised real questions about whether his abilities to hit the US would ever match his harsh threats.

But Kim’s achievements came at a high cost. The US and the United Nations have imposed harsh new sanctions on North Korea because of its nuclear and missile programs, including a measure on August 5 that prohibited some of North Korea’s exports like iron and seafood. More than 20 countries restricted North Korea’s diplomatic activities, including expelling its diplomats.

That’s contributed to the sheer suffering of most of Kim’s country, which is already one of the world’s poorest. A chilling report released earlier this month noted that North Korea’s prisons are “as terrible [as] Nazi camps,” in part because guards sometimes roll logs down a mountain to kill prisoners. Four North Korean soldiers even defected across the border this year, the highest total in almost 20 years.

When doctors treated one of them, they found a parasite in his stomach more than 10 inches long, showing that even Kim’s military — which gets more food than ordinary civilians — is suffering from severe malnutrition.

But Kim — who prioritizes his weapons programs over anything else — likely won’t mind. He is assuredly pleased with the progress his regime made in 2017. And North Korea experts I spoke to, like the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Joshua Pollack, expect Kim will only look to improve his weapons even more in 2018.

“Oh, they’re not done,” he told me.

North Korea’s missile program is now flying high

Kim got off to a rough start in 2017.

He ordered a missile test on March 22 in retaliation for a large-scale military exercise that the US and South Korea conducted earlier that month. The problem is the missile — which some experts believe was an intermediate-range weapon — barely made it off the launchpad and exploded within seconds. Had the test succeeded, it would’ve shown that North Korea was closer to a functioning longer-range projectile.

April wasn’t much better. On April 16, North Korea launched a missile that detonated shortly after it took off. A launch two weeks later went farther, but the missile didn’t make it out of North Korean airspace.

Despite the repeated failures, North Korea experts noted at the time that the weapons were still pretty advanced. “They’re not just showing off missiles that are hard to build,” Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea and proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute, told the New York Times in April. “They’re showing off all the associated technologies you need for credible deployments,” meaning that the missile’s engine and other parts showed North Korea kept improving the weapon’s design.

That all changed by the summer, when Kim started showing off weapons that were much more technologically advanced — and that seemingly worked as planned.

On July 4, North Korea successfully launched its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Experts who studied it said the missile could theoretically hit all of Alaska. (North Korea usually shoots its longer-range missiles straight up so countries around it don’t feel like they’re under attack. Experts calculate the missile’s reach based on how high up it flies and how far over it travels.)

Just over three weeks later, Kim completed another ICBM test, showing he could potentially strike major US cities like New York or Washington. It was a significant advancement that showed North Korea’s missile could go ever farther.

“You usually see new missile systems encounter failures early on,” Zachary Keck, a nuclear expert at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told me in July. However, “North Korea tested many of its components on earlier missiles and worked out the kinks.”

The UN Security Council — led by pressure from the Trump administration — imposed sanctions on North Korea on August 5 in retaliation for the ICBM launches. But Kim seemed emboldened by his recent successes. He went on to order two missile tests that flew over Japan — one on August 28 and the other on September 15. After the second test, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: "We need to let North Korea realize that if they keep taking this path, they will have no bright future."

North Korea didn’t test a missile for the next two months. That wasn’t so odd since Pyongyang rarely launches weapons in the winter months, partially due to bad weather. During the break, on November 20, Trump put North Korea back on the state sponsors of terrorism list — which, among other things, imposed even more sanctions on the country.

A mere nine days later, North Korea launched its most powerful missile yet. It flew 10 times higher than the International Space Station, and experts said the missile could likely strike every part of the United States.

Trump was infuriated by the missile tests, and threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against Pyongyang for its provocations. After all, on January 2 — weeks before becoming president — he promised that North Korea wouldn’t test an ICBM under his watch. But Kim did on three separate occasions.

Kim responded by saying he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” The war of words led some lawmakers to warn that there was a growing risk of actual war.

“We are far closer to actual conflict over North Korea than the American people realize,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

North Korea’s other weapons exploded on the scene

Kim’s improved missiles aren’t the only reason he’s had such a good year by his standards, though such a scary year for the rest of the world.

On September 3, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake registered inside North Korea. It turned out that Pyongyang had detonated a hydrogen bomb with at least a 100-kiloton yield, according to experts, which made the device around seven times stronger than the bomb America dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It was North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, and its first during the Trump administration.

As the chart below shows, it was also the country’s largest nuclear test — by far.

Screenshot of “North Korea’s Nuclear Tests.”
Center for Strategic and International Studies

“North Korea wants the ability to target the United States,” Lewis told me after North Korea detonated the bomb in September. “A thermonuclear weapon does more damage,” he continued, using another name for a hydrogen bomb.

And that bomb can do a lot of harm. Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told the Washington Post that the bomb meant the North “can destroy the better part of a city” even if its long-range missiles were relatively inaccurate.

During an interview with CBS’s John Dickerson on April 30, Trump didn’t rule out a military strike on North Korea if it tested a nuclear weapon.

TRUMP: I would not be happy. If he does a nuclear test, I will not be happy. And I can tell you also, I don't believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either.

DICKERSON: Not happy mean[ing] military action?

TRUMP: I don't know. I mean, we'll see.

He didn’t attack after the September nuclear test, and it’s unclear how he will respond if there is another one.

The US military now believes Kim already has a miniaturized nuclear weapon, which means the bomb is small enough to fit on top of a missile. But it’s still unclear if Pyongyang can reliably fit the bomb atop the projectile and detonate it thousands of miles away. That’s one of the hardest things for any nuclear program to do, but it’s definitely not impossible.

In the meantime, North Korean hackers are wreaking havoc around the world. On December 18, the US said North Korea was behind the WannaCry cyberattack. That attack used ransomware — where hackers use malware to scramble a victim’s files and then demand money to unscramble them — to infect businesses, banks, hospitals, and schools in more than 150 countries. One of the biggest strikes occurred in Britain, where it caused havoc in the health care system and interfered with surgeries and emergency services.

This isn’t the first time North Korea has launched a successful cyberattack. Experts and analysts believe the Kim regime was behind the $81 million cyber heist of the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016 and the Sony Pictures hack in 2014 right before it released The Interview, a comedy about two Americans who assassinate Kim Jong Un. But WannaCry seems to be Kim’s greatest cyber success to date.

So in addition to the missile program, Kim has demonstrated that his nuclear and cyber capabilities are also getting stronger. That’s another reason 2017 has given him cause to celebrate.

Ordinary North Koreans aren’t benefiting from Kim’s success

Despite Kim’s personal wins, the North Korean people continue to suffer under his rule.

Take the findings of an International Bar Association War Crimes Committee report released this month, which detailed the horrid conditions in North Korean prisons. Beauchamp, after reading the report, highlighted the horrifying realities for some of the approximately 80,000 and 130,000 North Korean prisoners:

[Warning: the following descriptions are extremely disturbing]

  • “Rape of teenage girls and their subsequent attempts to commit suicide by jumping in the Daedonggang River were so common that prison guards were deployed to the river to thwart them.”
  • “A soldier supervising a forced labor site at a political prison rolled a log down a steep mountainside, killing ten prisoners as they were carrying logs up the mountain.”
  • “A former prison guard witnessed a prisoner’s newborn baby, most likely fathered by a high-ranking official, fed to guard dogs and killed.”

Recent pictures of the country’s rural northeast highlight the country’s crippling poverty. The CIA ranks North Korea as one of the world’s poorest countries, and its people live on about $1,700 a year.

Even North Korean troops, who are highly revered and respected in the country, struggle to live decent lives. Four of Kim’s soldiers traversed the dangerous inter-Korean border to defect to South Korea this year, the highest total since 2000. In 2015, the Guardian noted how North Korean soldiers are forced to train on an empty stomach.

All of this serves to highlight the tragedy at the heart of Kim’s very good year: Despite the sanctions and international pressure, he continues to spend about 22 percent of the country’s GDP on its military. That doesn’t leave much for improving the lives of his people.

And so it appears that no matter what the international community does, North Korea will continue to focus on its weapons programs. As Van Jackson, an Asia security expert at Victoria University of Wellington, told me: “We can isolate them diplomatically, squeeze their economy, threaten them with nukes and regime change, point out how nukes undermine rather than bolster their security — and they just shake it off.”

North Korea is closer than ever to those goals. And if Kim gets them, which could be a matter of months, 2018 will be an even better year for the North Korean dictator. That’s good news for him. It’s terrible news for the rest of the world.