Why 2018 will be North Korea's year

If at the end of 2016 someone told me I would spend nearly the entire year watching North Korea test long-range missiles that could potentially strike the U.S. homeland and a hydrogen bomb, with prominent national leaders daily weighing the chances of potential war, I would have said they sipped a little too much spiked eggnog.  

To be honest, until this year, most national security experts—including yours truly—thought the real threat from Pyongyang wasn’t nuclear weapons but regime collapse that would force an international crisis of the gravest of magnitudes.

And while there has been fears since the late 1990s that North Korea could eventually develop technology to hit America with a nuclear tipped missile, most assumed such a threat was years away. North Korea was known more for failed missile tests than successes, with many doubting if the so-called hermit kingdom could ever really become a true nuclear power with global reach.

But failure can be one of the greatest teachers and make no mistake, going into 2018, the world’s collective gaze will be cast upon North Korea once again. Kim Jong Un and his band of bad guys are committed to developing a military armed to the teeth with evermore advanced weapons that, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis pointed out, “threaten everywhere in the world”.

In many respects, 2018 will be a virtual repeat of 2017: more missile tests starting in the early spring followed by at least one big nuclear test, lots of fiery rhetoric from both sides and a Trump administration agonizing over how best to respond.

So what can we expect from North Korea going into the new year? To put it simply: more of the same. Here are six things I will be watching in 2018—and why next year will bring far more tensions from the Kim regime—with the possibility of armed conflict now closer than ever before.  

More Long-Range Missile Tests: Yes, North Korea slowed the number of missiles tests it conducted as 2017 closed. And, to be fair, if history tells us anything, we won’t see a tremendous amount of missile tests until the spring. But, Pyongyang will test  its Hwasong-15 ICBM at least once more in the next few weeks, following a pattern of testing all new missile platforms at least twice. From there, North Korea has more advanced solid-fuel missiles that it has been developing for years that could be even more dangerous. Look for a test of those systems, along with the accompanying pictures and video, sometime in 2018.

Submarine Launched Missiles: While Pyongyang for sure has been working on nuclear-tipped missiles that can be fired from under the sea, we should expect the pace and scope and such tests will quicken next year. With the regime likely working on a new submarine design, Kim will be eager to demonstrate any new advances his underwater nuclear program may have made. And with some speculating this new weapon could have a range of three to four thousand kilometers, Kim would have another dangerous platform to attack U.S. allies and bases all over Northeast Asia—and eventually beyond.

Nuclear Weapons Tests: Recent reports show North Korea tunneling once again at their nuclear proving grounds, demonstrating that Kim is not done testing nuclear weapons. Expect the regime to test at least one more nuclear weapons design next year, an attempt to ensure they have a weapon that is compact enough to fit atop any of their missile designs that also has the destructive power to turn a U.S. or allied city into ash.

Some sort of Trouble at the Olympics: Mark my words, while I doubt Pyongyang will directly attack the Olympics, they will make sure the world knows they are only 50 or so miles away, just across the DMZ.

My guess is that Kim decides to launch some sort of cyber strike, say attacking TV network connections to the internet and broadband networks to knock out media coverage or go after South Korea’s banking networks and ATM machines. But North Korea won’t make it easy, using cyberwarriors stationed all over the world while also using proxy servers so there is reasonable doubt Kim’s forces were not involved—and get away with it.

No Help from China: With President Trump’s new national security strategy just being released, a document that labels China a revisionist power and attempts to tackle Chinese “economic aggression,” Beijing will not exactly have that warm and fuzzy feeling towards Washington. Such an action, just about as badly timed as you can imagine, will only cement China’s view that it has done all it can to help America contain the North Korea threat—and should do no more. There will be no oil embargo imposed by China. What seems more likely is a slow and steady weakening of sanctions—Beijing’s standard playbook.

China’s goal on North Korea is quite simple: make sure North Korea does not collapse or start a war—and use its ally to keep America from worrying about China’s push to dominate the South China or East China’s Seas or Taiwan. While Beijing might not likely Pyongyang’s aggressive push to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, it will use such moves to its advantage. That’s just International Relations 101.

No Help from Russia: While things with Moscow might be warm and fuzzy for now, just as in the case of China above, President Putin will not take too kindly to being labeled essentially an enemy of America. While he will likely see through the new “America First” national security strategy as what such strategies always are—a mission statement-style document that most administrations launch and quickly forget about—he has very little incentive to do much on this issue.

Just like China, Putin has every incentive to make sure North Korea does not collapse or start a war, but likes the idea of America being bogged down over Kim’s nuclear and missile programs—as Russia has its own national security objectives to focus on without American interference.

2018 Will Be the Year of North Korea: The above only scratches the surface of what will be a year filled with North Korea related headlines and times of tension. In many respects, 2018 will be a virtual repeat of 2017: more missile tests starting in the early spring followed by at least one big nuclear test, lots of fiery rhetoric from both sides and a Trump administration agonizing over how best to respond.

The good news, if there is any when it comes to North Korea, is that we have been down this road before, with a so-called “rogue regime” that is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to slam them into our homeland—think murderers of millions Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin.

Unless we are attacked first, right now, America can easily contain and deter North Korea, a nation that has an economy the size of Vermont. There is no need to embark on a dangerous war of choice, one that would be far worse than the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq combined many times over.

Sanctions combined with international isolation—while not the fastest way to bring Kim and his band of thugs to the table—will work. If not, and the administration decides to embark on the so-called “military option,” well, 2018 could be a year like no other

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.