Trump Tested by Slew of Bad Options for North Korea
American credibility on the line as saber rattling escalates in Pyongyang
No good options exist for dealing with the gathering danger of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.
On the bright side, the Trump administration has taken several steps in the right direction by repudiating the wishful thinking of its predecessors. The president understands that sanctions and negotiations will not suffice to halt North Korea’s determination to deploy nuclear missiles menacing to South Korea and long-range missiles capable of striking the United States.
President Trump must choose his words carefully to avoid lowering the barriers to aggression by speaking loudly while carrying a small stick.
The administration also appears to harbor no illusion that China — North Korea’s enabler for decades — is an honest broker working to defuse tensions rather than exploit the vulnerability of the United States and its democratic allies in the region.
Instead of envisaging China as a diplomatic partner in trying to reign in North Korea’s rogue regime, President Donald Trump has bypassed Beijing in fashioning a more robust diplomatic strategy and military deterrent. President Trump wisely rejected a Chinese proposal that the United States and South Korea cancel military exercises in exchange for a counterfeit freeze of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear program.
Speaking for the president, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pledged instead that “all options were on the table” after the latest barrage of North Korean missile tests. That includes pushing for sterner sanctions, greater collaboration with our democratic allies in East Asia, and deploying ballistic missile defense in South Korea — notwithstanding China’s objection that ballistic missile defense threatened to undermine the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent and hence could provoke a dangerous arms race. Haley minced no words, describing North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Un as unbelievably arrogant and “not rational.” Breaking starkly with the Obama administration’s default position to engage rogue regimes, including North Korea, Haley insisted that “this is not the time for us to talk about freezing our dialogue with North Korea.”
President Trump’s sterner measures diplomatically, economically, and militarily have done much to bolster U.S. credibility and capabilities regionally and globally, regardless of what North Korea chooses to do. The energetic development and deployment of ballistic missile defense will substantially reduce America’s vulnerability to nuclear blackmail everywhere, including East Asia.
Yet North Korea’s nuclear program is too far along, its leaders too implacable and impervious to the suffering of its enslaved people for even the most robust deterrent/containment strategy to thwart the rogue regime’s insatiable ambitions. The Trump administration will likely face a reckoning of choosing the least bad option of tolerating a nuclear North Korea or launching a preemptive military attack to prevent it.
How President Trump meets this stern challenge of choosing the lesser moral and geopolitical evil will have broad ramifications. Iran continues to test ballistic missiles in defiance of the spirit if not the letter of U.N. resolutions. President Obama's feckless nuclear deal with Tehran has facilitated that rogue regime's quest to cross the nuclear threshold even in the unlikely event that the militant mullahs abide by its porous and ineffective provisions. Nor is the agreement verifiable or enforceable in the unlikely event that the United States detects an unequivocal violation.
So President Trump must choose his words carefully to avoid lowering the barriers to aggression by speaking loudly while carrying a small stick. President Obama's cave-in on his Syrian red line resonated negatively not only in the Middle East, but convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin and an increasingly bellicose, expansionist Chinese Politburo that the United States issued hollow warnings that would vanish into the ether at the first sign of defiance. The lamentable record of the Obama administration internationally is a testament to the danger of not saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
If the Trump administration wishes to reverse the dangerous erosion of American credibility that Obama's Dangerous Doctrine has wrought, the president better be prepared to deliver on any vow he makes to prevent North Korea from crossing the nuclear threshold. Or he ought to define our goals more modestly as robust deterrence and provide ample means to make that posture credible. Otherwise, his administration will merely repeat the dangerous serial mistakes of his predecessors, lowering the barriers to aggression everywhere.
President Trump has thus far displayed sound instincts for rejecting the failed strategies of the past while choosing the combination of the least bad options for dealing with an unappeasable North Korean nuclear threat. Even so, he cannot tweet or bluster his way out of this dilemma any more than Obama's soaring rhetoric could substitute adequately for American credibility and resolve. The president would do well in this instance to pay heed to the sage advice of his most prudent, informed, battle tested advisors such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his NSC Adviser H.R. McMaster.
The gathering North Korean nuclear danger has bedeviled several presidents starting in the 1990's when North Korea swindled the Clinton administration into subsidizing its nuclear program in the fatuous hope that the regime would abide by its word.
President Trump has inherited a mess with North Korea that has no easy or risk free solution. How effectively he deals with it will profoundly affect the course of his presidency internationally.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of "Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama's Grand Strategy Weakened America."