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North Korea sent a signal to the Trump administration last night in the form of a “tactical guided weapon,” according to state media. It remains unclear what exactly North Korea tested.

Expand chart
Data: Center for Strategic and International Studies and Axios research; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Why it matters: President Trump and Kim Jong-un began with distrust, lurched toward fire and fury, then shifted into a period of stop-start diplomacy. With talks at an impasse, we now seem to be entering a new phase.

The latest: Last night's test was followed by a North Korean demand that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed from nuclear negotiations in favor of someone more "mature," and news that Kim would be visiting Vladimir Putin in Moscow later this month.

  • Trump has continued to stress his "excellent" relationship with Kim, and tweeted Saturday that a third summit "would be good."
  • It's hard to see what it would achieve, given North Korea's vehement opposition to the all-or-nothing approach to denuclearization backed by Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
  • With his latest moves, Kim is clearly attempting to change the equation.

Before Trump and Kim's spurt of diplomacy, U.S.-North Korea talks had entered a deep freeze. It began after a key series of events from late 2011 into early 2012.

  • Kim Jong-un replaced his father as leader just as North Korea and the U.S. were concluding the "Leap Day Agreement" — a freeze on North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for U.S. food aid and other concessions.
  • Kim moved ahead with the deal, but also signed off on a missile test that effectively killed it.
  • Van Jackson, a former Pentagon strategist and author of "On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War," says Kim had little choice but to approve the test. Still, talks broke down and mistrust intensified.

Jackson says the Obama administration maintained some engagement with North Korea through the UN and other channels but never found a "credible basis" on which to resume negotiations.

  • In the meantime, the U.S. was ramping up sanctions and engaging in covert cyberattacks.
  • "North Korea responds to pressure with pressure, and we've historically not understood that as a government," Jackson says. "We essentially pressured our way into a crisis."

The period of heaviest diplomatic engagement, meanwhile, came under Bill Clinton. But it was a "fractious political moment" and "Republicans threw sand in the gears," he says.

  • The lesson, Jackson says, is that a step-by-step approach — which many experts believe is the only plausible path to denuclearization — is "not going to lead anywhere good if it happens in an environment where North Korea is a contested political issue."

What to watch: While there have historically been far fewer tests and other provocations when the U.S. and North Korea are engaged in diplomacy, North Korea's successful launch in late 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. makes the value of a testing freeze less certain.

Go deeper: While nuclear testing paused, North Korean cyber threat still looms

Go deeper

14 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

15 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 15 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."