As U.S. President Donald Trump grapples with domestic crises and transition issues, the country that is widely seen as representing his largest foreign policy challenge is gearing up some 10,000 km away to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the United States.
North Korea, for all its bluster and bombast, is likely to present Trump with his first real test as Pyongyang seeks to gauge how the new president will approach the hermit nation’s progressing nuclear and missile programs. An ICBM launch, or another type of weapons test, is expected to come sooner rather than later, with some experts saying the Pyongyang is likely to prod Washington and Seoul in the next few months.
Reports last month said that North Korea had apparently built two missiles presumed to be ICBMs and placed them on mobile launchers for test-firing in the near future. It appeared to have intentionally leaked this news to send a “strategic message” to Trump just ahead of his inauguration, media reports said.
“I’m a little surprised there hasn’t already been some kind of provocation,” Steven Ward, who teaches political science at South Korea’s Chosun University, said of Pyongyang. “I doubt they are going to let him collect his bearings for long. They are going to want to know how Trump reacts to being pushed.”
But if he is pushed, little remains clear about how he will respond.
In conversations involving both President Barack Obama and Trump and his transition team, media reports characterized the outgoing administration as voicing a sense of urgency on North Korea, labeling it the top national security threat facing the U.S.
Beyond this, Trump has also used social media to express his anger at the North. When its leader, Kim Jong Un, proclaimed in January that the country was in the “final stage of preparation for the test launch” of an ICBM, Trump lashed out on Twitter, writing that it “won’t happen” — though he has not given specifics of how he would prevent this.
Last week he dispatched defense chief James Mattis to South Korea and Japan, a move widely seen as seeking to reassure the anxious U.S. allies of the new administration’s commitment to the region amid the North’s saber-rattling — and Trump’s own criticisms of the alliances.
Mattis said Friday that any use of nuclear weapons by the North on the United States or its allies would be met with what he called an “effective and overwhelming” response.
The pointed remarks by Mattis likely signal a shift from the Obama administration, which oversaw a policy of “strategic patience” in which Washington attempted to wait out a sanctions-crippled and recalcitrant Pyongyang.
That policy, observers say, has largely failed to halt the North’s progress on its nuclear and missile programs. Last year, it conducted more than 20 missile launches as well as two atomic tests — including its most powerful to date — moving the isolated nation closer to being able to mount a warhead on a missile capable of hitting the continental U.S.
“Strategic patience boiled down to not falling prey to North Korea’s own and far more effective strategy of provocation-negotiation-reaping concessions, while intermittently resorting to moral suasion to get China to rein in the Kim regime,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, an assistant professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
If Trump’s comments are any indication of the path he will take with the North — he has claimed that “China could solve this problem with one phone call” — he will likely ditch this strategy and attempt to heap more pressure on Beijing, the North’s only patron.
Indeed, Trump has blasted China for not doing enough on the issue, writing sarcastically on Twitter last month that “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”
Sino-North Korean ties, however, remain a vastly more complicated matter than a mere master-vassal state relationship, analysts say.
“While China’s cooperation is necessary to place needed pressure on North Korea, we must also recognize that North Korea lives in the space created by Sino-U.S. strategic mistrust,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 31. “This means that China’s inadequate enforcement of sanctions will never meet U.S. expectations due to differing American and Chinese strategic interests on the peninsula.”
But Trump, who has also hammered China over “unfair” trade practices, Taiwan and the South China Sea, may be in for a surprise if he expects to make progress on any of these issues. Beijing regards both Taiwan and the South China Sea as non-negotiable “core interests,” and Trump’s insistence on returning to them could limit any leverage he may have on the North Korean nuclear issue.
“My view is that Trump’s treating of China as being part of the North Korea problem rather than its solution will render the implementation of a strategic shift in the United States’ policy indeed very difficult,” said Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor of political science at the Tohoku University School of Law.
Adding to this acrimony has been Washington’s deployment to South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system, which Beijing says threatens its own security and will do nothing to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing itself may not even desire to press the issue for fear of spurring the North’s collapse that creates a full-blown refugee crisis and erases the buffer-zone state separating China from a U.S. ally.
Trump has also offered up a another, different path to resolving the issue: diplomacy.
The U.S. has for years dismissed calls for talks out of Pyongyang, insisting it must first give up its nukes. But given the failure of numerous other approaches, Trump has left the door open to speaking with the North.
Success, however, would be hugely dependent on Trump, a mercurial leader whose moves on the world stage thus far have inspired anything but confidence from North Korea watchers.
“I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point, including direct talks,” said Chosun University’s Ward. “Trump doesn’t care about the protocol and sensibilities of international diplomacy. Remember, he’s an experienced deal-maker, but he comes from a world where if he can’t get the deal he wants he can walk away from the table.
“That’s quite different from the way the international system works,” Ward added. “I worry about his compulsiveness.”
Beyond unilateral talks, experts, including Joel Wit, a North Korea expert and senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, say a hybrid approach is likely the best way forward. This would include a focus on talks with significant incentives to secure U.S. objectives and significant disincentives to punish Pyongyang if it rejects a serious and credible offer of negotiations.
“A strategy of coercive diplomacy, focused initially on aggressive and sustained diplomacy to secure phased denuclearization, offers the best prospects for success,” Wit wrote in a December report outlining policy recommendations for the Trump administration. “If this effort fails, Washington would significantly escalate pressure commensurate with the severity of North Korean actions, particularly the impending testing and deployment of an ICBM.”
Such a policy would likely face tremendous obstacles, including opposition from both within the U.S. and Japan and South Korea. However, wrote Wit, it “is the most promising choice from a menu of very bad options.”
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