North Korea has conducted five nuclear weapons tests, including two last year, and is reported to be preparing for another nuclear test in the near future. The rogue regime has also conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests. The Obama administration managed to push fairly tough sanctions resolutions through the United Nations Security Council, but North Korea has ignored them. During the last years of his term, Obama also reportedly ordered cyberattacks against the regime to sabotage its missile launches. The cyberattacks may have slowed down North Korea’s progress, but have far from eliminated the threat. Otherwise, Obama’s policy amounted to what became known as “strategic patience.” That is where things stood when Donald Trump took over as president.
Since the Trump administration has taken office, the rhetoric between North Korea and the United States over North Korea’s accelerating nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program has ratcheted up to unprecedented levels. Every day brings new threats and counter-threats. Alarms have been sounded that misunderstandings of each other’s intentions can lead to dangerous miscalculations, allowing perceived provocations by each side to potentially spin out of control. However, apocalyptic fears of an imminent, all-out nuclear war would appear to be premature, despite bluster from the North Korean regime that “nuclear war could break out at any moment.”
President Trump himself, along with senior administration officials, have cautioned North Korea to tread carefully. Tweeting that “North Korea is looking for trouble,” the president warned that the United States will solve the North Korea problem unilaterally if necessary.
Vice President Mike Pence, while visiting South Korea and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, warned North Korea’s leaders not to test President Trump’s resolve or “the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.” Vice President Pence emphasized that the “era of strategic patience is over” with North Korea.
The Trump administration is right to be concerned about North Korea’s unceasing drive to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile fitted with a nuclear warhead that is capable of striking the United States mainland. Although, according to best estimates, it will take North Korea several years to successfully develop, test and deploy the required technical capability to launch such missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland, the clock is ticking. Moreover, Japan, South Korea and other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region are already at risk from North Korea’s short and intermediate range missiles. North Korea’s last missile test on Sunday was a dud, possibly as a result of a U.S. initiated cyberattack, but North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-Ryol remained defiant. He declared, “We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis.“ It would be reckless to simply hope that the existential threat to the region, and ultimately to the United States, from North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program will simply go away on its own or could be stopped in its tracks by cyberattacks alone.
While maintaining that all options, including military ones, are on the table, President Trump is deliberately remaining cryptic when discussing what he specifically might do in response to any further provocations from the North Korean regime. Nevertheless, the president’s willingness to take decisive, sharply focused military actions in Syria and Afghanistan have sent a credible message of U.S. resolve to North Korea’s leadership, while achieving tactical successes in both theaters of operation. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, accompanied by three other warships in its strike force, will be arriving in the Sea of Japan off the Korean Peninsula next week, after some initial delay in their deployment.
Unfortunately, there is no sign that the North Korean regime will back down even in the face of such show of U.S. military strength. Rather, the isolated regime and its paranoid leader Kim Jong-un are likely to hunker down. North Korea, which sees itself in a struggle for survival, is willing to bet everything on its nuclear and ballistic missile program as part of a high stakes poker game to keep its enemies at bay at all cost.
Thus, there is no easy way to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat. Its missiles are well hidden in scattered locations throughout the country. A preemptive military strike by the United States would be unlikely to wipe them all out. Yet such a strike will almost certainly precipitate a devastating retaliatory attack – either by nuclear or massive conventional arms – on South Korea and Japan. Our bases and soldiers in the region will be in immediate peril. While the United States military would no doubt ultimately prevail in a military showdown with North Korea, it would almost certainly come at an unacceptable cost in civilian lives.
At the other extreme, trying to negotiate with North Korea some sort of nuclear freeze, much less denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, will prove futile. Going as far back as Bill Clinton’s presidency, prior administrations have tried the negotiations route, only to be suckered into useless talks or giving North Korea money in return for promises to halt its nuclear program that North Korea broke time and time again. Prior administrations have also failed to persuade China to use its full economic leverage over North Korea to get its ally to at least freeze its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
In short, the North Korean regime is willing to play extreme brinksmanship in order to stave off the invasion it fears from the United States and its allies and preserve its own power from any perceived external or internal threats. It also continues to be able to close off its populace from outside influences, as it indoctrinates them into believing that economic sacrifices are necessary in order for the country to maintain a sufficient war footing to survive.
President Trump appears to be listening to his senior national security team, who are urging restraint accompanied by muscular diplomacy. In addition to the show of military force and demonstrated willingness to use it, President Trump has reportedly leaned harder on China to use its influence with North Korea than any prior administration had done. The subject came up at his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month and during a follow-up telephone conversation. President Trump expressed willingness to be flexible on trade issues with China in return for concrete actions by China to deter North Korea. Otherwise, Mr. Trump said, he would solve the North Korean problem himself. His combination of carrots and sticks have already yielded some positive results.
The Chinese Communist Party’s official paper, the People’s Daily, advised North Korea to take President Trump at his word. “Not only [is] Washington brimming with confidence and arrogance following the missile attacks on Syria, but Trump is also willing to be regarded as a man who honors his promises,” it said. The United States “doesn’t plan to co-exist with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. Pyongyang should avoid making mistakes at this time.”
China has also reportedly sent more than 100,000 troops to North Korea’s border. It is most likely the case that China’s troop deployment is in part intended to deter any direct major U.S. military action against North Korea that China fears could topple the regime, possibly result in a unified Western-oriented Korean Peninsula, and cause a flood of migrants to try to enter China. At the same time, however, Chinese forces would be poised to enter North Korea and take control themselves if need be. They would “be in a position to force a coup or force Kim’s hand” to disarm, according to Sim Tack, a North Korea expert at Stratfor, as quoted by Business Insider. China would act, if it deemed necessary, to “make sure North Korea still exists and serves Chinese interests while it stops acting as a massive bullseye to the US,” he added. In other words, China might opt for a pliant regime it can fully control rather than continue to prop up the out of control megalomaniac Kim Jong-un.
In addition, China has recently applied more economic pressure on the North Korean regime. China’s customs authorities ordered trading companies to return coal imported from North Korea, sending North Korean ships laden with coal back home. That represents a huge blow to North Korea’s export business and its ability to get its hands on hard currency. If North Korea persists with more provocative actions such as nuclear weapons tests, warned another Chinese newspaper closely aligned with official government thinking, restrictions on oil imports to North Korea may come next.
While welcoming China’s cooperation to date, President Trump needs to deploy a variety of measures to counter the North Korean threat short of a full-scale pre-emptive attack. These may include enhanced cyberwarfare, deploying more robust missile defense systems in the region and in the United States, cutting off any banking firms doing business with North Korean entities from the U.S. banking system, and maintaining a major naval presence in the region with the capability of shooting down any missiles launched from North Korea aimed at any U.S. ally or base.
All-out war with North Korea is not inevitable unless we foolishly drop our guard.