North Korea to Donald Trump: Challenge Accepted

North Korea to Donald Trump: Challenge Accepted

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.

But for all these favors, the hard work remains of devising a Trump administration strategy for managing the North Korean problem. In the short run, the United States can double down on existing measures, to include tightening the sanctions and law enforcement measures that clamp down on Kim’s largely illicit financial enterprise. This might now require more secondary sanctions on companies—Chinese and others—persisting in doing business deals with North Korea. It certainly will include more demonstrations of force, especially in the upcoming Key Resolve and Foal Eagle U.S.-ROK exercises, but also possibly in the new deployment of advanced military platforms.

Many expert voices will call for concerted diplomacy directly with North Korea. John Delury, for instance, has established a track record in comparing nuclear dialogue with Iran with that of North Korea and vice versa. In Washington, DC earlier this month, Delury suggested that the Trump administration break the vicious circle of dealing with North Korea by offering Pyongyang economic benefits for limiting its nuclear and missile programs. Surely this approach would be well received by some in Seoul, especially if a more liberal government returns to power in elections that could come this spring.

While this is not meant to dismiss Delury’s approach, we have to recognize that it has been tried before. Most recently, it was imperfectly executed by the Obama administration before the short-lived Leap Day agreement of 2012 foundered on Kim’s decision to launch a three-stage rocket into space. Kim has accelerated his nuclear and missile programs since at least January of last year, and he appears determined to build a Pakistan-size nuclear arsenal with missiles that can reach the United States.

Diplomacy remains a vital part of a comprehensive strategy, but the United States will want to avoid one-sided agreements that reward bad behavior and yield little if any tangible security benefit. For instance, Nicholas Eberstadt makes a compelling argument for focusing on threat reduction by limiting the “killing power” of North Korea. Perhaps arms control can be part of a comprehensive approach that retains deterrence, pressure, incentives, strategic communications and other policy tools.

But the central policy challenge may not hinge on precisely which objectives Washington opts for. Rather, the bigger challenge is likely to be how we plan to achieve the agreed-upon goals and what role different actors play or don’t play.

China will have to be part of such an approach, for example, and yet the past experience is hardly encouraging. While some would like to portray China as a solution to the problem, it may be that China is more the problem than the solution. Consider China’s unstinting pressure on South Korea not to deploy the Theater High Altitude Area Defense system to protect itself from North Korea’s mounting threat. Meanwhile, some authoritative Chinese sources were quick to portray North Korea’s missile launch as a response to America’s “hard-line stance.”

Clearly, President Trump will want to test for himself how far President Xi Jinping might be willing to go to dissuade Kim Jong-un from further proliferation and provocation. Ultimately, North Korea is on China’s border, and should a feudal regime with nuclear weapons falter, it will be hard for Beijing to ignore the fallout. At the same time, the Trump administration is likely to find that strong bilateral alliances provide the surest, strongest and best-prepared tools for deterring North Korean aggression. Victor Cha makes an empirical and historical case for why this has been so in the past and is likely to be so in the future in his recent book, Powerplay.

At the end of the day, it may not matter whether the United States and its allies rely more or less on pressure and pursue more or less threat reduction. Instead, the real test is not about our strength but about North Korea’s weakness. The more Kim looks for invulnerability in nuclear missiles that threaten great powers, the more vulnerable Kim is apt to feel. This is not a call for or a forecast of regime change. Instead, it is a recognition of our national and collective strength and resilience, as well as a recognition that what the people of North Korea need will not be delivered on a nuclear-tipped missile.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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