On the first day of 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that his regime was preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Combined with efforts to produce ever-smaller nuclear warheads, the ICBM test would prove a decisive step in Pyongyang’s generational march toward an effective nuclear deterrent—one that could fundamentally change the way the United States, and indeed the whole world, deals with the reclusive North Korean regime.
But Donald Trump, then just weeks before assuming the presidency, promised he’d halt Kim’s test. “It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted.
It did happen. Three times, in fact. Not only did Pyongyang repeatedly test long-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in 2017, it also made significant progress arming its submarines with an atomic weapon.
And the United States failed to stop anything. Trump escalated his rhetoric, even threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea. Meanwhile the Pentagon organized impressive naval war games off the North Korean coast and aerial exercises near the Demilitarized Zone. The U.S. Army consolidated its own forces in South Korea at a sprawling, new mega-base.
But no show of conventional military might, and no late-night angry tweet from America’s commander in chief, could make up for Washington’s self-imposed diplomatic failures. Unwilling to negotiate, the United States watched while North Korea rose. In 2017, Pyongyang became a bigger nuclear power. And Washington became an impotent observer of the results of its own failures.
It didn’t have to be this way. When it comes to slowing the spread of nuclear weapons, history has proved that diplomacy actually helps. Trump either doesn’t understand that or doesn’t care. And that means 2018 likely will see more North Korean missile tests—and more meaningless American rage.