North Korea could quite possibly trigger the first major foreign policy crisis confronting the incoming Trump administration. In his New Year’s Day address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed that the country’s nuclear and missile advances in 2016 meant that Pyongyang had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.” On January 3, President-elect Trump tweeted:
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
But the president-elect didn’t intimate why or how a test could be prevented, leaving most observers wondering what (if anything) his message implied. Five days later, outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated that the United States was prepared to shoot down any such missile “if it were coming towards our territory or the territory of our friends and allies.”
It remains to be seen if Kim will make good on his apparent threat to test launch such a missile, if a launch could succeed, or whether the United States could successfully intercept it. But it is clear that the president-elect will inherit the threat of North Korea’s weapons programs from the Obama administration, much as President Obama inherited it from President George W. Bush. However, the issue is now measurably more worrisome than when President Obama entered office. The continued growth of North Korean weapons capabilities has led former senior American officials (including former Secretary of Defense William Perry), to recommend resuming diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.
[The North Korea] issue is now measurably more worrisome than when President Obama entered office.
Perry’s proposal—“talk first and get tough later”—puts the cart before the horse. North Korea has long maintained a singular obsession with its nuclear weapon and missile capabilities, and has repeatedly made clear it will not negotiate an end to its weapons programs. (Nuclear weapons possession is even enshrined in the revised North Korean constitution.) The leadership somehow believes that possession of an operational nuclear force is the key to the survival of the Kim regime (it is not clear why or how) and to legitimating its international status, as well as to enabling psychological dominance over the Republic of Korea (ROK). More important, as Perry himself acknowledges, possession of nuclear weapons might convince North Korea that it could launch much riskier actions against South Korea and Japan without fear of retaliation. Though the goal of North Korean denuclearization remains, the preeminent U.S. policy objective is now less the near-term reversal or cessation of the North’s weapons programs, and more to disabuse Pyongyang of any belief that its capabilities provide it added advantage or protection from the consequences of future actions that it might contemplate.
In President Obama’s first inaugural address, he declared America’s readiness to “extend a hand” to old adversaries if they were prepared to “unclench [their] fist,” and North Korea was clearly among the states he had in mind. But North Korea decided to double down on its nuclear wager, proceeding first with an attempted long-range rocket launch and then with a second nuclear test, both in the opening months of the Obama presidency. Despite subsequent efforts by the Obama administration to resume diplomacy with Pyongyang (in particular, the short-lived “Leap Day” agreement of 2012), all these efforts came to naught, and North Korea has never looked back.
Despite criticism from both left and right, President Obama continued to pursue a multiple track policy over the duration of his administration. He sought to deny Pyongyang any claims to nuclear weapons status, to impose economic and political sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programs, and to appreciably heighten its security commitments to the ROK. Though these policies did not convince Pyongyang to reverse course, they enabled the United States to build an international coalition that remains unprepared to accept the North’s claims to standing as a nuclear weapons state, and for the administration to prepare more coercive options should deterrence not prove ironclad.
These are the circumstances that the Trump administration will inherit from its predecessor, and North Korea’s nuclear advances make conditions increasingly worrisome. Kim Jong-un appears to believe that he can sustain and enhance his weapons programs without major impediments or severe consequences. The United States must impart to Kim that his beliefs are objectionable and wholly contrary to U.S. interests, and that they will be opposed in word and in deed. When the incoming and outgoing presidents met two days after Mr. Trump’s victory, President Obama purportedly warned his successor that North Korea would loom as a much larger issue in years to come. Despite President-elect Trump’s repeated dismissal of intelligence estimates (at times bordering on open contempt), he allegedly requested and received a briefing on the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
Is there a there there?
Though estimates within the analytic community on the North’s weapons inventory vary, all experts agree that Pyongyang now possesses an appreciably larger nuclear force than it possessed at the outset of the Obama administration. Its nuclear inventory is generally estimated at between 10 to 20 weapons, and some analysts believe the size of the force could grow significantly in the next few years. On approximately two dozen occasions during 2016, North Korea also launched a wide array of ballistic missiles that included failures as well as successes, with several presumably envisioned as candidate means of delivery for a nuclear warhead. North Korea has undertaken four nuclear weapons tests since the Obama administration entered office, including two in 2016. Pyongyang claims that the two most recent tests were of a hydrogen bomb (viewed by most experts as a boosted fission device rather than a thermonuclear device), with the latest test (in September) supposedly a successful test of a nuclear warhead.
Absent an observable atmospheric test and a demonstrated ability to successfully launch a warhead from a missile—singular international norms upheld for 36 years that even Pyongyang has not violated—definitive proof of the North’s capabilities remains lacking. But North Korea clearly wants the United States and other powers to believe that it possesses such enhanced capabilities. The threat to launch an ICBM is one more part of this strategy, though there is little reason to believe that the Trump administration (any more than the Obama administration) would be prepared to validate North Korea’s claims to standing as a nuclear weapons state. A central element in U.S. strategy must therefore be to deny North Korea the means to exploit perceived or actual capabilities for coercive advantage. This should be made clear first and foremost in a regional context, where Pyongyang already possesses the means to inflict severe harm on its neighbors, with or without resort to nuclear weapons.
A central element in U.S. strategy must therefore be to deny North Korea the means to exploit perceived or actual capabilities for coercive advantage.
Passing the torch
Donald Trump will be the fifth U.S. president since the end of the Cold War to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities and programs. In his confirmation testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson stated that North Korea and Iran posed “grave threats” to international security. He also chastised China’s “empty promises,” saying: ”It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea.” He claimed that China’s unwillingness to enforce sanctions to the satisfaction of the United States “must end,” without specifying how this admonition would be carried out. But finger wagging at Beijing has never proven an effective strategy to elicit Chinese cooperation.
Do the new administration’s policy options look appreciably different from Obama’s? Doubtful. The Obama administration has patiently and persistently attempted to work with China on imposing additional costs on North Korea for its nuclear and missile pursuits. Even though China objects strongly to the impending deployment of a U.S. THAAD ballistic missile battery in South Korea, China is an increasing participant in strengthened U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and played a central role in drafting the new sanctions resolutions. As North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs accelerated, American officials warned Beijing that if China was not prepared to heighten cooperation, the United States (along with Seoul and Tokyo) would act separately to protect its core national interests. An amply strengthened sanctions regime and heightened deterrence measures have been the result. At the same time, Beijing increasingly concedes that the North’s weapons programs are a danger to all the states of Northeast Asia, including China.
President-elect Trump’s national security team seems well aware of the risks Pyongyang poses on the Korean Peninsula and beyond, and of the need to defend against and mitigate these risks, if at all possible short of war. The incoming administration has wisely undertaken important steps to reassure senior South Korean officials (already reeling from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye) that the United States will reinforce cooperation with the Republic of Korea. In a January 9 meeting between incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwang-jin, Flynn reaffirmed the U.S. decision to proceed as expeditiously as possible with the THAAD deployment and to ensure that deterrence and robust sanctions would be sustained under the Trump administration. These steps represent important correctives to Mr. Trump’s decidedly unhelpful campaign statements that accused South Korea of free riding on U.S. security commitments, when Seoul’s contributions to the alliance and its own level of defense effort amply surpass virtually all other U.S. allies.
None of these measures guarantee that a severe crisis will be avoided on the peninsula, but they leave the new administration far better prepared to cope with one. Its approach to crisis prevention and risk mitigation draws directly on the Obama administration’s enhanced security commitments to the ROK, including new procedures to strengthen extended deterrence between the two countries. Diligent, intensive security consultations and careful policy deliberation, not impulsive tweets, are essential for imparting to Pyongyang and to Beijing that the United States fully intends to uphold its security commitments in Northeast Asia. Though not explicitly acknowledged by the incoming administration, the President-elect’s close advisors have wisely begun to draw on the tools and practices the Obama administration leaves behind.