North Korea likes to conduct weapons tests right around the time Donald Trump meets with key Asian leaders. Now, just as Trump heads to the region for a tour, South Korea’s intelligence agency is reporting brisk activity at missile research facilities north of the border.
For North Korea, a missile or bomb test timed to Trump’s trip would ensure maximum attention being directed toward its increasingly sophisticated weapons programs. In the days ahead, the world leaders with the most influence over its fate will be meeting for talks, with North Korea a main topic. For Trump, one goal for the trip is to convince North Korea’s neighbors to do more to increase economic pressure on the country.
After a stop in Hawaii, Trump is scheduled to land in Tokyo on Nov. 5 before heading to South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Pyongyang pays close attention to the schedules of Trump, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and Chinese president Xi Jinping. In February, North Korea launched a missile while Abe was visiting Trump for the first time at the Mar-a-Lago country club in Florida. In April, just days before Xi’s first visit to Trump at the same estate, North Korea launched another missile. North Korea also embarrassed Xi in May by firing a missile from near the Chinese border just as Xi was about to inaugurate the Belt and Road Forum, a meeting centered around his signature “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative which was attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin and other leaders.
One disturbing scenario involves North Korea detonating a nuclear bomb during Trump’s trip—not just underground, as it’s done in tests so far, but over the Pacific Ocean. The country’s foreign minister hinted in September that such a test was a possibility in the near future, hours after supreme leader Kim Jong-un said of Trump, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
Exploding a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific could have devastating environmental consequences, as did tests conducted by the US decades ago.
North Korea has also been working on a more advanced version of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland, CNN reported this week. The nation has been busy improving its ability to launch missiles from submarines as well.
North Korea has been relatively quiet of late in terms of weapons tests. While it’s fired 22 missiles during 15 tests since February—a busy schedule—it hasn’t conducted a launch since mid-September. That may mean it’s waiting for the right time, but the slowdown could also be part of a seasonal pattern in recent years of the country launching fewer missiles toward the end of the year, as observed by Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The highly secretive nature of the Kim regime makes it hard to know, but whatever Pyongyang is planning for its future weapons tests, it has no doubt highlighted on the calendar the days of Trump’s trip to Asia.