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By Brian Goldsmith
Saturday marks a celebration for North Korea, the anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung. But for the rest of the world, it’s a day of wariness and worry.
Will Kim’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, use the occasion to flex its nuclear muscle?
Experts believe North Korea currently has about 10 nuclear weapons, and enough nuclear material to make 100 more. Key to a successful weapons program isn’t just the nuclear “warhead,” but a missile to deliver it to a target. Intelligence agencies estimate that the North’s missiles could reach South Korea or Japan right now, and the continental U.S. by 2026.
How, and why, did this isolated, impoverished nation develop into a nuclear power? And what does it mean for the United States?
In the 1950s, the Korean War, which split North from South, put the fear of God in Kim Il Sung. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commanded U.S. forces in Korea, wanted to attack the North with a nuclear weapon. MacArthur was stopped by President Harry Truman, but Kim knew that only if the North had a nuclear weapon could the country prevent a future attack.
Later that decade, the Soviet Union began training North Korean scientists and signed a nuclear cooperation deal with its communist ally.
In the 1960s, the North opened its main nuclear research facility, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital.
Even as the North spent years and billions developing a nuclear capacity, it also signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids the development of a nuclear program.
By the 1990s, North Korea used the threat of withdrawing from that treaty to win concessions from the West. At the same time, the North was gaining secret nuclear know-how from partners in Pakistan.
During the past two decades, the North Koreans signed, then violated, nuclear agreements, all while building up their nuclear program.
In 2006, Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, conducted the country’s first nuclear test. Since then, it has conducted four more tests. The most recent one, last September, was the strongest ever.
How have the U.S. and the rest of the world responded?
With sanctions, U.N. resolutions, covert efforts to sabotage the program and lots of tough talk.
President George W. Bush said in 2006, “Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama said, “On the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has abandoned its own commitments and violated international law. Its nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose a grave threat to the peace and security of Asia and to the world.”
Recently President Trump told Fox Business, “We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you. And we have the best military people on earth. And I will say this: [Kim] is doing the wrong thing.”
But it’s unclear whether these words and actions are enough to put North Korea’s nuclear genie back in the bottle.
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will ultimately respond. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “The president is not one who is going to telegraph his response. I think he keeps all options on the table. He keeps his cards close to the vest.” He added, “The last thing we want to see is a nuclear North Korea that threatens the coast of the United States or, for that matter, any other country or any other set of human beings.”
Whatever the U.S. does, at least when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program you can say, “Now I get it.”