National Security Desk / July 5, 2017

A Game Changer in North Korean Aggression

After Kim’s successful ICBM launch, Trump is faced with his most difficult foreign policy challenge to date.

Tuesday’s successful test flight of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) opens a new chapter in what is becoming an increasingly tense relationship between the U.S. and the hermit kingdom. Experts agree that Kim Jung Un’s ICBM has the capacity to strike Alaska, providing the dictator with the potential to pose a direct threat to the U.S. itself and not just our regional allies. This is a game changer. It must now be admitted that U.S. policy over the past two decades regarding North Korea’s continued weapon development program has for the most part failed.

“The United States strongly condemns North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “Testing an ICBM represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world. Global action is required to stop a global threat. Any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits, or fails to fully implement UN Security Council resolutions is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime. All nations should publicly demonstrate to North Korea that there are consequences to their pursuit of nuclear weapons.” Furthermore, Tillerson said, “As we, along with others, have made clear, we will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”

It’s apparent that Kim has decided he is in a race for survival. Clearly, recent international pressure, including long-running UN sanctions, has done little to slow North Korea’s missile development program. Kim believes that no one will risk war with a nuclear power, so he’s gambling that he can become enough of a nuclear threat before the U.S. and the rest of the world act so as to deter any militaristic action against his rogue nation.

Now Donald Trump is faced with what will be his toughest foreign policy challenge yet. China and Russia have called for the U.S. and South Korea to end their annual joint war-games training, which the North hates, while Beijing and Moscow have also called on the North to end its missile development program. For Trump to agree to this would be a mistake, as it essentially plays right into the North’s demands — the Kim regime has a long history of breaking promises. What makes the situation that much more difficult is North Korea’s relationship with China. Any military action taken by the U.S. against North Korea risks serious concerns over conflict with China. Even though the North has proven to be quite the headache for Beijing, the Chinese seem entirely unwilling to lose the buffer zone between themselves and U.S. ally South Korea. Or to lose their trading partner. Trump noted, “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us.”

Herein lies the quandary: The only real shot at drawing down North Korean aggression without resorting to military action is through China. The U.S. strategy then must be aimed at pushing China to act. Trump should begin discussions on the possibility of arming South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapon capabilities to match that of the North Koreans. This will provide a strong incentive for China to act immediately.

Trump will be meeting with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping at the G20 Summit this week. Can Trump work to solve the North Korean crisis without the use of military action? That is the hope, but in the long run military action may be required.

(Updated.)

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