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The big picture: The North Korea situation as Trump heads to the UN
Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde September 17, 2017

Just a couple of days before his expected speech to the United Nations General Assembly President Donald Trump dubbed North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as the "Rocket Man."

"I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!" Trump tweeted Sept. 17.


Trump’s brief tweet touches on serious policy. The United Nations has recently adopted a series of resolutions sanctioning North Korea for its continuous firing of ballistic missiles. The most recent sanctions cut over 55 percent of refined petroleum products, including gasoline, going to North Korea.

The Trump administration has strongly condemned North Korea, calling it a global threat and affirming that a military option is not off the table.

Ahead of Trump’s UN speech, here’s what you need to know about how the United States has dealt with North Korea in the past and how the Trump administration plans to forge ahead.

North Korea’s recent history

North Korea has had nuclear ambitions since its leadership under Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who established the country in 1948.

North Korea’s capabilities have evolved over the years, with more than 100 missile tests since its first in 1984. The country conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile test in July 2017, and as of Sept. 3, 2017, it had conducted its sixth nuclear test.

Those tests have taken place under three generations of leadership. Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The late Kim Jong Il had succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, after his death in 1994.

U.S. presidents have failed to make North Korea end its nuclear weapons program.

Former President Bill Clinton negotiated a deal in 1994 with North Korea to provide it with two nuclear reactors and heavy fuel oil in exchange for the country giving up its nuclear weapons program. That agreement failed.

The Six-Party Talks began in 2003, under George W. Bush’s presidency, and involved China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States in negotiations to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. During the talks, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. It withdrew from negotiations in 2009.

Most recently, former President Barack Obama employed a policy of "strategic patience," escalating sanctions against North Korea in response to its ongoing tests. That policy did not stop Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of an intercontinental missile.

The Trump administration’s most recent approach

Trump said soon after taking office that he planned to make a sharp departure from Obama’s policies.

"The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed. Many years and it’s failed. And frankly, that patience is over," Trump said in June, standing next to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the White House Rose Garden.

Trump said his administration was working with Japan, South Korea and others on a range of diplomatic and economic measures to protect the United States and its allies against North Korea.

Trump’s language escalated Aug. 8 when he warned North Korea about meeting it "with fire and fury like the world has never seen" if it threatened the United States. His words came after reports that North Korea had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead that could fit into missiles. On Aug. 9, North Korea said it was considering missile strikes near Guam, a U.S. territory with military bases.

At a Sept. 15 White House press briefing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said it was important to "try and push through as many diplomatic options as we have."

Yet North Korea has continued to be "provocative" and "reckless," Haley said.

"And at that point, there's not a whole lot the (United Nations) Security Council is going to be able to do from here when you've cut 90 percent of the trade and 30 percent of the oil," Haley said, referring to recent U.N. sanctions. "So, having said that, I have no problem kicking it to (U.S. Secretary of Defense) General (James) Mattis, because I think he has plenty of options."

Is the United States headed to a military confrontation with North Korea?

That’s still to be determined, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sept. 17:

"We’re out of road, because in the past, the approach taken to the problem of North Korea and the Kim regime over decades has been to enter into long, drawn-out negotiations that then deliver an unsatisfactory agreement, an agreement that then the North Korean regime breaks."

The facts on North Korea

PolitiFact has fact-checked multiple claims related to North Korea, its nuclear weapons program and the international community’s response to its missile tests. Here’s a sample:

We found that it’s Half True that "Cuba is far more sanctioned than North Korea."

A viral image falsely blamed former president Clinton for giving North Korea the means to make nuclear weapons.

A Trump tweet describing an August U.N. resolution as the "single largest economic sanctions package ever on North Korea," costing more than $1 billion, was Mostly True.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in on the legality of the current nuclear launch approval process.

Fake news writers earned Pants on Fire ratings in July for claiming that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was dead.

What about Trump calling Kim Jong Un ‘Rocket Man’?

Wallace asked Trump’s National Security Adviser if "Rocket Man" was a new one for the president, who’s known to give nicknames to people he opposes.

"Well, that's a new one and I think maybe for the president, but it reminds me of a cover of The Economist a few years ago, portraying him as Rocket Man," McMaster said.

"But, of course, that's where the rockets are coming from. Rockets, though, we ought to probably not laugh too much about because they do represent a great threat to all -- to everyone," McMaster said.

The Economist cover was about Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, and appeared in July 2006.

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Our Sources

Twitter, @realdonaldtrump tweet, Sept. 17, 2017

U.S. Mission to the United Nations, FACT SHEET: Resolution 2375 (2017) Strengthening Sanctions on North Korea, Sept. 11, 2017

NTI, The CNS North Korea Missile Test Database, Aug. 1, 2017

New York Times, North Korea Tests a Ballistics Missile That Experts Say Could Hit California, July 28, 2017

NTI, North Korea, Sept. 2017

PolitiFact, Viral image wrongly blames Bill Clinton for giving North Korea the means to make nuclear weapons, Aug. 9, 2017

Washington Post, The slow death of the nuclear deal with North Korea, Jan. 6, 2016

New York Times, North Koreans Say They Tested Nuclear Device, Oct. 9, 2006

New York Times, A Big Blast in North Korea, and Big Questions on U.S. Policy, Sept. 9 2016

New York Times, How Trump’s Predecessors Dealt With the North Korean Threat, Aug. 17, 2017

Twitter, @realdonaldtrump tweet, June 30, 2017

New York Times, Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea if Tt Endangers U.S., Aug, 18, 2017

Yonhap News Agency, N. Korea threatens missile strike near Guam, Aug. 9, 2017

White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sept. 15, 2017

PunditFact, Are sanctions against Cuba tougher than they are on North Korea?, July 7, 2017

PunditFact, Viral image wrongly blames Bill Clinton for giving North Korea the means to make nuclear weapons, Aug. 9, 2017

PolitiFact, Trump claims new U.N. sanctions cost North Korea over $1 billion, Aug. 6, 2017

PolitiFact, A Trump nuclear strike against North Korea: constitutional or not?, Aug. 10, 2017

PunditFact, Fake news site posts that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is dead for a second time in a month, Aug. 4, 2017

PunditFact, It’s fake news that an American killed North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, July 20, 2017

The Economist, July 8, 2006 cover

Fox News, General H.R. McMaster on global threats; Blunt, Durbin talk DACA, dreamers and dealing with Trump, Sept. 17, 2017

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The big picture: The North Korea situation as Trump heads to the UN