The Trump administration has the opportunity to end North Korea’s alarming nuclear aspirations.
The potential threat of North Korean aggression has long loomed over the United States, and more immediately over its closest allies in the Asia-Pacific—South Korea and Japan. Over the past eight years, the Obama administration was overly cautious and attempted—with little success—to contain North Korea. But now, Donald Trump threatens to shift US policy on North Korea too far in the opposite direction. What the US needs instead is to enact a policy approach between the two extremes, one that acknowledges the delicacy of the North Korean situation without seeming timid or instigating a full-blown conflict.
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have increased dramatically over years of continued research and development despite lagging behind virtually all other nuclear-capable nations in terms of maintaining a long-range missile stock. The rapid pace of North Korea’s nuclear weapons research shows no signs of stopping. The country’s capabilities will likely grow until its authoritarian government’s nuclear ambitions are fulfilled. These ambitions center on the creation of intercontinental warheads capable of reducing the US and its allies “to ashes” should Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un desire. As recently as March 2017, four North Korean missiles were fired and landed in the Sea of Japan, a brazen move that Japanese Prime Minister called “a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions.”
The Obama administration utilized what then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton referred to as a policy of “strategic patience” on the North Korean issue. Essentially, the Obama administration reasoned that North Korea’s provocative statements and actions would damage its relationships with other countries in the Asia-Pacific. This, in combination with the relative taming of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, would allow the US to wait until North Korea’s government itself decided to denuclearize because of sanctions and pursue other, less destructive interests. The Obama administration incorporated its policy of strategic patience into its larger “pivot” to Asia.
The Obama administration’s strategy did very little to halt or even slow North Korean nuclear ambitions and aggressive tendencies. Indeed, strategic patience on North Korea—indicative of Barack Obama’s broader foreign policy framework of restraint—resulted only in an increasingly unstable and uncertain geopolitical position for countries like South Korea, Japan, and even China. Strategic patience has only facilitated North Korea’s pursuit of its own agenda with unabated fervor; the country is unintimidated by the policies of the Obama administration and US allies in the Asia-Pacific. Although an approach akin to strategic patience could still be implemented to combat North Korea, the associated stakes will continue to rise. If the threat of North Korean aggression, for the Asia-Pacific and the US, is to be mitigated, US policy concerning North Korea must change.
Trump’s administration, as with many other geopolitical issues, has promised such change. Obama reportedly confided to Trump that North Korea could be the most impending threat to future US national security. Despite their somewhat bizarre relationship to one another, Trump appears to have taken his predecessor’s advice to heart in his own unorthodox fashion: on January 2, Trump tweeted that North Korea’s stated and planned test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (which would be potentially capable of reaching US soil) “won’t happen!” More recently, it was revealed that the Trump administration plans to “turn up the volume” and increase pressure against North Korea’s belligerent tendencies.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s words have also suggested a profound shift in US deterrence of North Korea. While in Seoul in mid-March, Tillerson—with the upfront bluntness of a career non-politician—stated that US adherence to the notion of strategic patience had ended and that “all options are on the table” to prevent a North Korean attack in Asia or on the US. In addition, Tillerson called upon China to honor its proverbial end of the bargain on containing North Korea, citing North Korea’s economic and military dependence on China as a potential but unexplored advantage. Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, has voiced similar concerns, decrying previous US stances on China’s relationship to North Korea as “soft” and claiming that China ought to validate its obligation to containing North Korea through decisive action.
While this kind of refocusing of US policy and objectives concerning North Korea in the Asia-Pacific is a welcome adjustment after the failure of the Obama administration, the Trump administration is signaling a shift too far in the opposite direction. Tillerson’s comments indicate the Trump administration’s willingness to launch preemptive strikes against North Korea. Of course, Tillerson’s words could also be interpreted differently. If, for example, the Trump administration intervened to stop North Korea from testing an ICBM, such an act could be considered preventative rather than preemptive. But if that missile poses an imminent threat to the US or its allies, any military action taken to prevent its firing would likely consist in a preemptive strike ordered by President Trump.
Although the Trump administration’s desire to “play tough” with North Korea is a potentially advantageous shift in US policy, a preemptive strike against North Korea could become a dramatic overextension. Even if committed in response to actionable intelligence, such a strike would almost certainly have devastating consequences for US allies in the Asia-Pacific (who would be at immediate threat of counterattack) as well as US international standing. However, preventative measures against North Korean aggression could ensure that no goading and costly preemptive strikes become necessary. The most beneficial course for the Trump administration to pursue would likely involve a substantial uptake in general intolerance towards North Korea (and, if necessary, carefully executed containment procedures) without crossing into any incriminatory or costly military action.
That is a fine line to tread. The relative passivity of the Obama administration and unwarranted, uncalculated brashness that Trump is foreshadowing are two undesirable extremes. Either stance would only embolden North Korea further. Moreover, the hawkishness that Trump has been projecting, rather than benefiting US national security and the security of our allies, would deeply imperil geopolitical stability in the Asia-Pacific and innocent lives throughout the world. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration can pull back from its turbulent and provocative start to identify that fine line and walk it successfully.
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Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.