The year 2018 was a chaotic one for U.S. foreign policy. Between a trade war with China, sporadic roller-coaster diplomacy with North Korea, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, observers of international affairs struggled to catch their breath. But if 2018 was chaotic, 2019 is poised to be a much more dangerous year for Washington, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons. If the Trump administration’s foreign policy continues on its current trajectory, there is a significant chance that the United States could find itself in not one but three nuclear crises in the next 12 months: one with North Korea, one with Russia, and one with Iran.
Although the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula has declined in the last year, the Trump administration’s strategy remains unsustainable, in that it depends on the presumption that North Korea would ever be likely to unilaterally surrender its nuclear weapons. After a flurry of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and thermonuclear tests in 2017, which elicited “fire and fury” threats from Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in a 2018 New Year’s address, ordered his country to “mass produce” nuclear warheads—a directive he did not reverse in his 2019 address. Soon thereafter, he began a charm offensive that resulted in a peace process between the two Koreas, led the Chinese to relax their support of the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, and culminated in the historic Singapore summit with Trump in June.
At the summit, Kim pretended he was going to disarm, and Trump pretended to believe him. The U.S. president has maintained the pretense ever since. In September, Trump went so far as to say that he “fell in love” with Kim and declared, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” North Korea has taken cosmetic and reversible steps to partially close its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri and an engine test stand at Sohae, but
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