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North Korea has long been one of the most secretive nations in the world, and making predictions about it has, correspondingly, long been inadvisable. Keeping that in mind, we’ll make one here anyway: 2018 is when something finally gives on North Korea—one way or another.
It’s unlikely that next year will offer a mere continuation of events in 2017, with North Korea testing ever more advanced weapons, the UN and various nations applying ever stricter sanctions against it, and the rhetoric between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—or “dotard” and “little rocket man”—escalating ever higher.
It seems likely, meanwhile, that North Korea will soon be able to reach all of the US with nuclear weapons that can survive long rocket journeys in working order. Some experts caution it might already be there, despite Trump tweeting “It won’t happen!” in January. Trump has been giving strengthened sanctions more time to work, but he doubts they will and has signaled the US will deploy force if necessary to stop the nuclear threat. China, for its part, is already preparing for the flood of refugees expected to cross its border should chaos break out.
Something has to give.
Or maybe not. In foreign policy, Trump has been accused of “speaking loudly and carrying a small stick,” in which he harangues or threatens foreign leaders, promises drastic policy changes, and then, in the end, backtracks or backs down. He’s often been accused of doing that with China, most recently this week. He could be behaving similarly with North Korea.
It’s possible that a year from now not much will have changed: no war, no talks, no significant results from sanctions. The Kim regime could still be routinely testing ever-better missiles and the occasional nuclear bomb. Perhaps it will have even demonstrated it can “break out” by exploding a nuclear missile somewhere over the Pacific, as it’s threatened to do, and received nothing but admonishments from leaders and environmentalists—and interest from rogue states and shady groups in buying such weapons.
If we find ourselves in the same place this time next year, it’s possible to see that as a standstill. But another read could be that North Korea has inched closer to gaining the world’s tacit acceptance of its status as a nuclear-weapons power. That, too, would represent a significant shift in 2018.—Steve Mollman
(Read an extended version of this article covering the most likely scenarios.)
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