North Korea to Donald Trump: Challenge Accepted

A North-Korean-built M-1978 KOKSAN. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps

Pyongyang's weaknesses are being tested, not American strength.

The exclusive, members-only Mar-a-Lago Club is accustomed to keeping out riffraff, but not even Donald Trump’s private retreat fortified by Secret Service agents could prevent Kim Jong-un from intruding upon his golf-diplomacy summit with Shinzo Abe. Test firing a nuclear-capable missile into the Sea of Japan provides a type of admission, albeit a very expensive and unwelcome one.

The test also interrupted forty-eight hours of hugely successful Asia diplomacy for the Trump administration. It abruptly changed the conversation from an invigorated U.S.-Japan alliance and a stabilized U.S.-China relationship. Thus, less than a month into a hugger-mugger transition of power, President Trump’s besieged and revolving national-security team could be forgiven if North Korea’s missile launch—followed by the reported poisoning of Kim Jong-un’s half brother—made some recall Henry Kissinger’s quip that “there cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Kim was counting on creating a crisis for the fledgling Trump administration. By firing a mobile, solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from an air base near the northwest frontier with China, Kim maximized the element of surprise to ensure intelligence agencies had none of the early-warning signals that would attend a fixed-site, liquid-fuel launch. Kim also chose the moment to provide sharp contrast between his thrusting missile capabilities and the no longer de-stressing leaders of the region’s strongest alliance.

Kim locked his crosshairs on other audiences, too. He effectively demanded that all North Koreans forget about their poverty and oppression and stand in awe of the extravagant military prowess of their dynastic dictator. Further, he invited all outside powers to renew their bickering about how to grapple with Pyongyang’s addiction to unruliness and proliferation.

Anticipating North Korean provocations, President Trump had already ordered a national review of policy options for dealing with Pyongyang, and this latest launch of a modified IRBM validated that decision. It also should not hasten a comprehensive strategic review that includes the experience and insights of Asia experts who will be joining the administration in the coming months.

After all, there are no good options for dealing with a North Korea determined to acquire nuclear weapons capable of threatening U.S. soil. One former Obama administration official recently likened the dearth of policy options to those in the fictional Star Trek Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario.

Kim’s launch of a new hybrid variant IRBM is undeniably a test. But as Secretary of Defense James Mattis is fond of saying, “the enemy has a vote,” and in this instance we are the enemy. Hence, it’s up to the Trump administration—working with allies and partners—to determine who precisely is being tested, how they are being tested, when they are being tested and where they are being tested. In other words, it is up to us to define our theory of victory in this tussle with an obstreperous—but ultimately unsustainable—regime clinging to a delusion that the world will let it become both a nuclear-weapon state and a thriving economy.

In the fullness of time, we may have to thank Kim Jong-un. For one thing, he reminded America that the new administration must leave campaigning behind and move forward with governing. The world will not stand idly by while a president issues a torrent of executive orders to respond to an electorate that voted for a change agent. National-security policy, moreover, must not only supersede domestic policy, but also requires an effective team with well-honed processes in place for decisionmaking. Most expect administrations in transition to pass through a difficult shakedown period, but in today’s world there is no time for rehearsals. Even a strong soloist performs much better with a full orchestra behind him.

Kim’s test also reminded the United States why it maintains powerful alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and highlighted the rare instance in which the United States and China have come to legal agreement. United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley can join most of the world in condemning North Korea’s unlawful missile launch—unlawful because its past transgressions forced the UN Security Council (including China) to enact resolutions denying Pyongyang of that otherwise sovereign right.