There are all sorts of New Year’s traditions—watching the ball drop in Times Square, singing Auld Lang Syne off key, drinking way too much. But my favorite New Years tradition? Every year the the leader of North Korea gives a big speech.
Yeah, I know, I am a weirdo.
Hear me out, though. Last year, Kim Jong Un said this: North Korea “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.”
Some people were skeptical. Donald Trump, at the time president-elect, assured the world “It won’t happen!”
And then it happened. Three times. Not long after then third happening, North Korea announced that the new missile meant North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.” So, it helps to pay attention to this speech.
What will 2018 hold? Lately, I’ve seen some people speculating that the reference to “completing” the rocket force meant North Korea might come back to talks. Sadly, I think that’s the wrong reading of “complete”—and now the United Nations Security Council has imposed new sanctions on North Korea, sanctions that North Korea called “an act of war.” Let’s just say I am not expecting a lot of happy talk on New Years Day.
And so what might be coming next? Judging from satellite photographs, more missiles. Lots more missiles.
One such photograph shows where North Korea conducted its most recent missile launch. It was taken a few days later. The missile was loaded onto a truck inside a relative new building called the March 16 Automotive Factory, then driven out into the nearby field. Kim watched the test from a trailer a few kilometers away.
Along with my colleagues at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, we were able to initially locate this place based on the interior of the building where the missile was prepared for launch. It is the newest building at the March 16 Factory. Just to be clear: We’re not freaks with perfect recall of the interior of every building in North Korea.
Kim had just visited it a few weeks before—although state media showed only civilian trucks. This is an old factory in Pyongsong that was initially established as a joint venture with a Russian firm about a decade ago, but it seems cooperation fell apart after a few years. The autoworkers seem to have landed on their feet, though.
Now let’s look at the outside of that building. Something new has appeared in satellite images, right outside the door. This structure was not there on Nov. 4 when Kim visited. North Korea added it two weeks later.
We’ve seen a building like that once before—at another factory for building missile launchers. It is a covered area that allows North Korean workers to attach the arm that lifts the missile and raise it up. These vehicles, called transporter-erector-launchers, do two important things: They transport the missile horizontally and then use a big arm to erect it vertically. If you build one of these vehicles inside, you need a tall ceiling to make sure the arm works. Compare it to this 3-D model that my colleague Melissa Hanham made of a similar structure at North Korea’s Feb. 8 Machine Complex, near Mup’yong-ni. (Coincidentally, that is where North Korea conducted its previous ICBM test, on July 28.)
North Korea was showing off the missile, sure. But what North Korea was really showing off was the ability to make as many launchers as it wants. The North Koreans said so very directly: “The country can manufacture as many as it wants now that the munitions industry has made a breakthrough in putting the production of all parts of the vehicle 100 percent on a domestic and Juche basis.”
Just for fun, a couple of days later, Kim Jong Un swung by the tire factory. That same day, North Korea released a statement indicating that North Korea would strive to “maintain an effective balance of force” with the United States. How many nuclear weapons do you think that will be? The message is loud and clear—North Korea is going to keep building and testing nuclear missiles.
When the state run news agency KCNA says the missile test “completed” the country’s historical mission, just go ahead and imagine Kim Jong Un looking at his missileers and saying “You complete me.” Just look at the propaganda images sometime. Kim loves missile and nuclear tests. Look at Kim in photographs and videos released by North Korea, giving his missileers big sweaty man hugs and piggyback rides. We’ll pry those missiles from his cold dead hands.
There are all kinds of other surprises that might be in store for us—more ICBM tests, more nuclear weapons tests. And, God forbid, the North Koreans follow through on their threat and do both at once, putting a live nuclear warhead on a missile. (I don’t think this is nearly as unlikely as most. The U.S., Soviet Union, and China all did it—why not North Korea?) We really should stop daring Kim Jong Un to prove every technological development. Serious nuclear powers don’t test things just once. And North Korea, whatever you may think about it, aspires to be a serious nuclear power. For Kim Jong Un, his missile and nuclear keep the Americans at bay and make for good propaganda.
North Korea is also past due for another satellite launch. North Korea last put a satellite in orbit in 2016—which seems like forever ago. North Korea is continuing construction at its Sohae space launch center on the west coast and has announced plans for a series of satellites, including one in geostationary orbit. The space launch program is very much alive and 2018 will probably be a big year for that. (This will give my colleagues at CNS a chance to tout the relatively new rocket assembly building we found in the suburbs of Pyongyang, near Sanum-dong. Once upon a time, a new 100,000-square-foot facility for building rockets in North Korea would have been a BFD.)
North Korea also has a whole generation of solid-fueled missiles that will, someday, replace the liquid fueled ones. We’ve already seen North Korea test the Pukguksong-1 from a submarine and -2 from a tractor-tank looking thing. North Korea also let us see a diagram of something marked Pukguksong-3. That disclosure probably wasn’t a slip-up. It’s not clear what the Pukguksong-3 will be, but it could be launched from a canister carried on a large truck or maybe the new submarine North Korea is building at Sinpo. There are a lot of options here, none of which we will like.
One thing I don’t think is coming in 2018 is a war to disarm North Korea. I get the sense from talking to friends and colleagues that people are walking around D.C., muttering “Winter is coming.” As best I can tell, this administration doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do, so it resorts to war talk on cable television to look tough and, maybe, hope the Chinese are somehow forced to do something that magically solves our problem for us. My sense is that the Pentagon is moving toward containment, leaving McMaster and the rest of the clowns in the White House to keep blustering. Of course, I might be wrong. But in that case, if you live in New York or D.C., you’ll be too dead to say you told me so.
But, hey, prediction is a mug’s game. All we have to do is sit with our eggnog and wait patiently. Come Jan. 1, the ball will drop, people will sing, and Kim Jong Un will tell us exactly what he plans to do in the coming year.