KCNA, December 2017.
The last few years in global affairs have been dominated by Vladimir Putin. Since his reelection to the Russian presidency in 2012, Putin’s ambitions and policies have strongly impacted the globe in sorts of ways. Just consider the following: Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics, its invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, and its meddling in various elections throughout the west, including in the US and France—all important events. Over the past decade, Russia, on many fronts, has been a force that other actors have to cope with and respond to, despite not being one of the two most powerful states in the world. Russia has punched above its weight, so to speak, in global influence and significance.
The idea of punching above one’s weight has remained a dominant theme in international relations in 2017. But it’s not Russia that has driven the lion’s share of world events this past year, it’s North Korea. And because of that, my nomination for world politics “Person of the Year” is Kim Jong Un, the portly young “Rocket Man” of Pyongyang.
To be clear, this isn’t an endorsement of North Korea’s behavior or wild statements and threats. Moreover, it’s not a vote of approval of how Kim governs and leads North Korea. Rather, it’s simply an observation that North Korea, under Kim’s guidance, has managed to set the tone and course of events in 2017. Let’s face it, North Korea has dominated news headlines in 2017. It has dominated the attention of world leaders. It has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity in the UN and East Asia. It’s even baited US President Donald Trump into a twitter spat. It has repeatedly flouted UN resolutions and broken international law. And just as importantly significantly, North Korea has threatened and frightened an increasing number of people worldwide.
The source of all this sturm und drang is Kim Jong Un’s unrelenting drive to advance his nation’s missile and nuclear capabilities. This quest could be a function of offensive motives, such as the desire to unify the Korean Peninsula on his terms. It could well be an effort to test Trump, to see if he’s a paper tiger. It might also be a product of defensive factors, such as worries of being abandoned and left vulnerable by China and longstanding fears of an American-led invasion. Plus, domestic politics is also probably playing a part here. Keeping the nation safe—something the Kim dynasty has promised that only it can do—buttresses Kim’s legitimacy.
Regardless, what we do know is that Kim’s military program has sped into overdrive this year. In September, North Korea is widely believed, based on geological data, to have tested a two-stage hydrogen bomb, a more sophisticated and destructive nuclear test than it had previously tested. As The Washington Post points out, “original estimates had put its yield in the 100-kiloton range, but updated seismic data analyzed by experts…put it closer to a whopping 250 kilotons, or nearly 17 times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.” Just as alarmingly, the explosive device is believed to be small enough to fit inside a rocket. In other words, North Korea has ostensibly perfected the art of miniaturization and weaponization.
Meantime, North Korea has also conducted twenty-three tests on six different types of missiles in 2017. North Korea’s latest missile test, which displayed a new ICBM called the Hwasong-15, has triggered further global concern, especially in Washington. The Hwasong-15, launched on November 29th, flew for roughly 54 minutes at almost 2800 feet in altitude, giving it a likely range of over 8000 miles, if launched at a normal trajectory—all of those figures, but most significantly altitude and range, exceed North Korea’s previous tests this calendar year. Pyongyang’s July 29 “game changer” test was tabbed by experts as evidence that North Korea could hit America’s Midwest. The late November test puts all of the US in range, including East Coast hubs like New York, Boston, Washington, DC, and Miami. Even Cuba is now within range of a North Korea rocket—either a conventional one or a nuclear-tipped one.
Put simply, the North Korea problem is a gathering storm, one that’s becoming more dangerous and complicated by the day, and one that’s come to a head in 2017. North Korea’s growing and advancing nuclear and conventional weapons arsenal is problematic on its own terms, as it gives Pyongyang greater abilities to harass, threaten, and strike US and allied interests. But we’re also now seeing harrowing off-shoot problems, like the prospect of first-strike preventive attacks, accidental launches, and war via miscalculation/misinformation, picking up steam. Furthermore, 2017 is the year that the North Korean puzzle has turned from a denuclearization problem to a deterrence game. And America’s refusal to treat the problem as such inevitably means that Kim gains more time in the global spotlight going forward.