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.