The Trump Administration’s Response to a Nuclear North Korea

Despite the implementation of various sanctions and several UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong-un has continued to develop nuclear weapons. In 2016 alone, it conducted two nuclear explosions and more than 20 missile tests. More recently, North Korea test-fired a volley of missiles off the coast of Japan. It also tested an intermediate-range missile that used solid fuel – a feat which disarmament experts have called a significant advance.

Even more startling, perhaps, are North Korea’s claims that the missiles are intended for the United States. In March of 2016, the state-controlled media released a propaganda video depicting a nuclear strike on Washington, along with a warning to “American imperialists” not to provoke the country. The four-minute video clip, titled “Last Chance,” uses computer animation to show an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) slamming into what appears to be the Lincoln Memorial.

“If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a pre-emptive nuclear strike,” read the Korean subtitles in the video, adding: “the United States must choose! It’s up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not.” Shortly after, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea was in the “final stage” of preparation for the first launch of an ICBM that could reach the U.S.

North Korea released a similar propaganda film, coupled with a high-thrust rocket engine test, following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first official visit to South Korea. According to the New York Times, the video depicted an American aircraft carrier and a warplane being destroyed in computer-generated balls of fire. North Korea’s missiles will be “stabbed into the throat of the carrier” and the jet will “fall from the sky,” it warns.

A day later, North Korea issued a statement saying the country would not be deterred from developing nuclear weapons. “The nuclear force is the treasured sword of justice and the most reliable war deterrence to defend the socialist motherland and the life of its people,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Classified assessments of the country conducted under the Obama administration indicate that Kim believes his nuclear weapons program is the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime and will never trade it away for economic or other benefits.

Unlike the Obama administration, however, President Trump and his top deputies are determined not to let such behavior continue without repercussions. “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Secretary Tillerson said to the press while touring the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.” Tillerson hinted that the options might include more vigorous enforcement of sanctions, ramping up anti-missile defenses, cutting off North Korea’s oil, and even taking pre-emptive military action if the North Koreans elevate “the threat of their weapons program” to a level deemed unacceptable.

Tillerson has also publicly ruled out any negotiation with North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs, although this was a central component of past administrations’ policies. He argues that negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction.” Even with a nuclear freeze, North Korea’s capabilities are advanced enough to threaten U.S. allies and military bases in Northeast Asia. The rejection of negotiations for a freeze is consistent with the approach taken by President Obama, who declined Chinese offers to restart the so-called six-party talks unless the North first agreed that the goal of the negotiations would be the “complete, verifiable, irreversible” dismantling of its program.

It also appears as though the Trump administration blames China, North Korea’s strongest ally, for the continued dalliance with nuclear weapons. “North Korea is behaving very badly,” Trump tweeted recently. “They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” The Trump administration has raised the prospect of disciplinary measures against American companies in China, in response to growing evidence of their involvement in building components that are used in North Korea’s weapons programs.

Additionally, Trump administration officials have discussed putting pressure on Chinese banks through secondary sanctions– a technique that worked against Iran – which would make it hard for any bank that did business with North Korea to also deal in American dollars. Former defense secretary William Perry has said that he doubts their value. “We have sanctioned them a hundred times, and it didn’t stop developing nuclear weapons,” he noted. “They seem to be prepared to suffer economic deprivation for the people so they can achieve the preservation of the regime, which they think that nuclear weapons is going to do for them.”

With regard to sanctions, Tillerson says there is more that the international community could do to pressure North Korea: “I don’t believe we have ever fully achieved the maximum level of action that can be taken under the United Nations Security Council resolutions … we know other nations could take actions to alter their relationship with North Korea.”

With these discussions occurring fewer than 100 days into the new administration, it is clear that Trump and his advisors have no intention of placing North Korea on the back burner. Though previous administrations recognized the threat that the North’s nuclear weapons program poses to the United States, Trump seems to be the first president who is willing to tackle the problem head-on, even if it means working outside the realm of the UN. However, only time will tell if he can successfully facilitate the denuclearization of North Korea.  If he succeeds, he will have begun to fulfill his promise to “make America safe again.”