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Trump and North Korea: On the Mark Or On Collision Course?

January 05, 2017

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During his annual New Year’s address on Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dropped a bombshell: He stated as part of his review of the past year’s accomplishments that North Korea has entered “the final stage in preparations to test-launch” an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). One that could hit the United States.

That, at least, is Kim’s intent. For years, these threats were treated as bluster because it was clear that the country did not have the capabilities to match them. This may have changed in 2016.

Last year, North Korea conducted missile tests of various types on twenty-four occasions, including tests of both its estimated 3,000 kilometer-range Musudan intermediate-range missile and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). North Korean media claims that the country now has “standardized” a nuclear warhead that can be delivered on such missiles and to have made progress toward mastering atmospheric re-entry required to develop an ICBM. Some analysts assess that North Korea already has the ability to conduct a nuclear strike on the United States with an ICBM, and continued North Korean progress in this direction would give the country a small, but formidable nuclear strike capability by 2020. This burst of activity designed to expand North Korea’s capabilities is why Kim’s declarations of intent must be taken seriously.

President-elect Donald Trump responded with two tweets:

But neither engaging in a rhetorical “threatdown” with North Korea nor expecting China to denuclearize the country obscures the fact that as long as North Korea continues to make progress toward nuclear development, time is not on the side of the United States.

Kim Jong Un has staked his survival and his strategy on the idea that the United States, in the end, will acquiesce to a nuclear North Korea rather than engage in forceful regime change measures that would involve huge financial costs to China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Kim asserted as much again in his New Year’s Day speech: Only when the United States sets aside its “hostile policy” by curtailing annual U.S.-ROK military exercises and recognizing a nuclear North Korea would conditions be in place for North Korea’s denuclearization.

In essence, it seems Kim has absorbed the lessons of Iraq, Iran, and Libya by declaring that North Korea is too nuclear to fail.

Kim is also betting that Sino-U.S. geostrategic mistrust will prevent the United States from making common cause with China to force regime change. China’s uneven implementation of economic sanctions against North Korea and prospects of a more confrontational Sino-U.S. relationship signaled in Trump’s tweets will give Kim grounds for hope.

There are widespread expectations that Kim will test the Trump administration in its early days, just as North Korea greeted the Obama administration with missile and nuclear tests in 2009. The effective response would be for the Trump administration to find a way to work with China—which would surprise Kim. At a minimum, the president-elect must isolate North Korea as an essential area of cooperation in an otherwise contentious U.S.-China relationship. And to stop North Korea’s nuclear development, sanctions must be strengthened.

Only then might Kim Jong Un recognize that his gambit has failed, and that he must end North Korea’s threats to conduct a nuclear strike on the United States.

A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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