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The Last Chance to Stop North Korea?

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Last week’s weapons tests broke what had been an unusually quiet period on the North Korea front, reminding the Biden administration that the country’s zeal for nuclear weapons will eventually demand the White House’s attention.

Usually by this time in a new U.S. administration, the president would have already seen North Korea carry out a handful of ballistic missile or nuclear tests. That’s because the Kim regime in Pyongyang loves to test newly elected American leaders. Indeed, North Korean provocations cluster close to U.S. presidential and congressional midterm elections, a trend that has been especially true during the last few election cycles. Remember when President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat huddled over reports of North Korean missile tests during dinner at Mar-a-Lago only three weeks after Trump’s inauguration? And when President Barack Obama was greeted with a rocket launch in April 2009, followed by a nuclear test during his first Memorial Day weekend as president? Until last week, President Joe Biden has had to deal with none of that, even though the United States has taken part in events that usually upset North Korea, such as holding a summit and carrying out joint military exercises with South Korea in recent months.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not acted according to script for reasons that may have to do with COVID-19, whose impact on the country remains largely unknown to the outside world. Still, the Biden administration should not take comfort in the relative lack of provocations thus far. Although North Korea’s saber rattling remains subdued, a crisis is brewing as Pyongyang continues to quietly develop weapons systems that could threaten the United States. The weapons tested last week do not appear to have the capability to reach the United States, but they should still be taken seriously. North Korean state news described a low-altitude cruise missile it launched as a “strategic weapon,” suggesting Kim’s ambition to field a nuclear cruise missile, which only a handful of countries now possess. It also fired a short-range ballistic missile from a railcar platform on September 15. This suggests a road-mobile launch capability, which along with solid-fuel propellant (which the North Koreans have already produced) would make it more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike a missile before its launch. These are all capabilities that make North Korea’s nuclear deterrent more survivable and impervious to a U.S. first strike.

But these tests aren’t the only troubling signs. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is going “full steam ahead,” Rafael Grossi, the head of the........

© Foreign Affairs

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