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North Korea: the threat we overlook

South Korean news footage of a North Korean rocket launch. Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

One of the “more overlooked geopolitical developments” of last year was North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, says Sue Mi Terry in Foreign Affairs. Kim Jong-un’s rogue state logged nearly 100 missile tests in 2022, a record for the country. They included an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads to the US mainland, and North Korea’s first major solid-fuel engine, which makes rockets “harder to detect and preempt”. Nukes aren’t the only concern. Pyongyang has ramped up its cybertheft activities, stealing as much as $1bn worth of cryptocurrency in just two years. And on Boxing Day, North Korea flew surveillance drones across the southern border for the first time in five years. Some even entered “the 2.3-mile no-fly zone surrounding the presidential office in Seoul”.

Washington has had “other pressing concerns”, such as the war in Ukraine. But it seems to have become “inured to the North Korean threat”: efforts to curb the regime’s nuclear programme have flatlined since the 2019 summit between Kim and Donald Trump. The same is not true of the hermit kingdom’s neighbours, South Korea and Japan. Both countries have sharply hiked defence spending, and Seoul has publicly suggested that it may need nuclear weapons to defend itself – a move backed by around 70% of South Koreans. All of this raises the risk of a miscalculation leading to regional conflict, with catastrophic consequences. The long stalemate on the Korean peninsula is “entering a new and more dangerous phase”.