When US President Donald Trump took office on January 20, the new administration’s policy on North Korea was unclear.
Here’s how events have unfolded.
The day before Trump recited the oath of office on the Washington Mall, the North Korean leadership had already prepared its own unique welcome for the incoming President. On January 19, US intelligence satellites picked up signs of activity at North Korea’s Chamjin missile factory southwest of Pyongyang, in an apparent readying of a test of two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Ten days later – January 29 – as Defense Secretary James Mattis prepared for his first visit to Asia, it was reported that the country was preparing to restart a plutonium reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, according to analysis of new satellite imagery from 38 North, a North Korea tracking project.
The Trump administration kicked off the month with Mattis’ East Asian jaunt, landing February 2 at the Osan Air Base outside Seoul. Top of the agenda was a key component of South Korea’s defenses against its northern neighbors’ aggression – the THAAD missile interception system.
Three days later, February 5, the US and its East Asian ally Japan successfully downed a test medium-range ballistic missile with a new interceptor launched from a guided-missile destroyer.
North Korea didn’t take long to respond. On February 11, it reported it had successfully completed the launch of a new ballistic missile, the previously unknown Pukguksong-2, according to state media. It was the North’s first missile test of the Trump era.
Things took a twist worthy of a movie plot, when, on February 14, alleged North Korean agents reportedly murdered Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) with VX nerve agent.
Shortly after, in the wake of the DPRK’s missile test and the resultant growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, China banned imports of Chinese coal for the remainder of the year. China’s Ministry of Commerce said the decision was made to comply with a UN Security Council resolution that China helped draft and pass last November.
March was an even busier month for the Korean Peninsula. It kicked off, on March 6, with North Korea’s firing of four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea) in what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described as “an extremely dangerous action.”
The missiles, three of which landed within 200 miles of Japan’s coastline in its exclusive economic zone, were fired as part of a drill targeting American military assets in Japan by North Korea’s Hwasong artillery units, North Korean state media KCNA said.
On the heels of the multiple launch, South Korea’s US-built THAAD missile defense system – which China vigorously opposes – arrived on the peninsula. As it was delivered, China’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, warned that the US and North Korea are set for a “head-on collision” with neither side willing to give way.
On March 14, the US, along with allies South Korea and Japan, responded to the North’s earlier missile tests, dispatching high-tech missile defense ships to the same area where Pyongyang had previously fired the four missiles. The Aegis warships began exercises to improve their capability to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles, the US Navy said in a statement.
The maneuvers came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked upon his first Asian trip, landing in Japan on March 15.
Five days later, Pyongyang again ratcheted up tensions by testing a rocket engine, one which showed “meaningful” signs of progress, according to South Korean officials. Meanwhile, in the face of the looming threat from North Korea, Japan begins to hold evacuation drills to prepare for any potential North Korean missile launched aimed at the country.
The North Koreans launched another missile just days after the engine test, but it exploded “within seconds of launch,” according to US Pacific Command. As March wound down, Pyongyang once again went back to its engine tests – technology could possibly be used in an eventual ICBM.
In a separate move, the US announced that the US Marines deployed F-35B aircraft to South Korea for the first time as part of an exercise.
Trump began the month by declaring, on April 2, that the US would be willing to go it alone to restrain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should China fail to change the situation.
Two days later, as Trump prepared to meet his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, North Korea fired another ballistic missile off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, US and South Korean officials said. As the two leaders sat down to steak and pan-seared sole at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump made the decision to pull the trigger on a missile strike in Syria – the biggest military action of his presidency and a possible declaration of intent for Pyongyang.
Shortly after, North Korea issued a forceful response to the deployment of a US naval strike group, including the 97,000-ton carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to the region April 10, saying it would counter “reckless acts of aggression” with “whatever methods the US wants to take.”
Days later, monitoring group 38 North said its analysis had concluded that North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear site is “primed and ready” for a sixth nuclear test. Also on April 13, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the country may already have the capability to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve agent.
Meanwhile, the US waded again into military action, dropping a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), the US military’s largest non-nuclear weapon, on an ISIS hideout in Afghanistan, the first time this type of weapon has been used in battle, according to US officials.
Two days later, at an annual military parade in Pyongyang, the North Korean regime showed off a bevy of new missiles and launchers at its annual military parade.
Part of the display were two new ICBM-sized canisters as well as North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a land-based version of the same for the first time, according to analysts.
The following day, April 16, another attempted missile launch by the Kim regime failed, US and South Korean defense officials told CNN.
After the attempted test, US Vice President Mike Pence, visiting the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on April 17, warned North Korea not to test the resolve of the US “or the strength of our military forces.”
North Korea’s UN deputy representative, Kim In Ryong, responded, warning that the US actions and rhetoric have “created a dangerous situation in which thermonuclear war may break out at any moment on the peninsula and poses a serious threat to world peace and security.”
After boasting that the USS Carl Vinson strike group was being dispatched to the Korean Peninsula in a “show of force,” the US was forced to walk back the claims after it emerged that the ships in question were actually on their way to participate in military exercises in the Indian Ocean, some 3,500 miles in the opposite direction.
The Pentagon announced on April 18 that it would conduct two major tests of its ability to shoot down missiles launched out of North Korea in May.
On April 19, the UN Security Council tried to address North Korea’s latest missile launch with a proposed statement that would have condemned the test, but Russia used its veto to torpedo the motion.
The same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing was “gravely concerned” about North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile activities. Lu also praised recent US statements on the North Korean issue.
On April 20, the UN Security Council formally condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch, demanding that it “immediately” cease further actions that violate resolutions. Russia denied it had previously blocked the action, saying that it wanted to add language to the document.
North Korea launched a missile April 29 that blew up over land, a US official said. The missile failed to reach the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.
It was later confirmed that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier had finally arrived in Korean waters, ready to begin drills with its South Korean counterparts.
To wrap up a tense month on the Korean Peninsula, Trump praised the North Korean leader, saying he had come to power at a young age and was a “smart cookie.”
Trump began a new month of relations with North Korea on a more positive note, saying on May 1 he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances.”
On the same day, US officials confirmed the controversial THAAD system was finally deployed and operational in South Korea.
The North Koreans fired a ballistic missile May 14 that landed in water 60 miles south of Russia’s Vladivostok region, a US official told CNN.
It was the first provocative move from North Korea since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office on May 10. Moon has advocated for engagement with North Korea to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
The launch came as Chinese leader Xi Jinping and multiple world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, attended a major trade and infrastructure summit in Beijing.
Within a week of the previous test, North Korea launched another missile on May 21, described by state media as a “ground-to-ground strategic ballistic missile.” That test was followed in quick succession by another launch on May 29, a short-range ballistic missile that traveled an estimated 248 miles before landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Following multiple missile launches in May, on June 2 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to introduce new sanctions against North Korea targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program.
On June 8, North Korea fired four anti-ship missiles into the sea east of the Korean Peninsula. The move came less than 24 hours after Seoul announced it was suspending deployment of the THAAD missile defense system pending an environmental assessment.
US military officials said on June 30 that revised military options on North Korea had been prepared and would be shown to President Trump if Pyongyang were to conduct an underground nuclear or ballistic missile test that indicates it has made significant progress toward developing a weapon that could attack the US.
On the July 4 US Independence Day holiday, North Korea said it conducted its first successful test of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can “reach anywhere in the world.” The milestone launch came days after Trump spoke with Japanese and Chinese leaders about the North Korea threat and just before the G20 summit in Hamburg.
The US and South Korea responded by holding a joint missile drill to counteract North Korea’s “destabilizing and unlawful actions,” a US Army statement said.
North Korea conducted a second ICBM test on July 28, which South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said was more advanced than the July 4 launch. Experts believed if this missile were fired on a flatter, standard trajectory, it would have major US cities such as Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago well within its range. Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying “the whole US mainland” is now within North Korea’s reach. He also called Pyongyang’s weapons program “a precious asset” that cannot be reversed or replaced, according to the agency.
The United States responded by holding live-fire drills with South Korea and flying two stealth bombers over North Korea in a show of force.
President Trump condemned the launch and reiterated his call for China to do more to help rein in North Korea, but told reporters “we will handle North Korea.”
CNN’s James Griffiths, Paula Hancocks, Joshua Berlinger, Ben Westcott, Ivan Watson, Yoko Wakatsuki, Hidetaka Sato, Eli Watkins, Dana Bash, Barbara Starr, Richard Roth, Tim Schwarz, Zachary Cohen, Jeremy Diamond, Steve Almasy, Nicole Chavez and journalist Taehoon Lee, contributed to this report.