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Following a public demonstration of a completely “homemade” nuclear device claimed to have “great destructive power,” North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, which the U.S. Geological Survey reported as generating a 6.3 magnitude explosion. The test, accompanied by a demand that the United States abandon its “hostile policy” toward North Korea, directly defies President Donald Trump’s warnings that North Korean threats would be met with “fire and fury, and frankly power that the world has never seen.”
If the president follows through on his rhetoric, the United States will be involved in what Defense Secretary Mattis has characterized as a “catastrophic” military conflict to permanently end the North Korea threat. Such a conflict could consume Trump’s presidency and drastically transform the political landscape; it would probably not relieve Trump’s domestic political difficulties but compound them. Whatever doubts are openly circulating within Congress regarding Trump’s leadership could be magnified and underscored if Trump becomes a war president.
But if the president does not follow through on his rhetoric, he will be seen as a paper tiger and his power to effectively use the bully pulpit of the presidency would be further reduced. The credibility of the president globally might take a hit, but in not following up on rhetorical threats toward North Korea, Trump would in reality be little different from Clinton or Bush.
Trump will want to handle North Korea’s sixth nuclear test different from Obama, so a U.N. Security Council resolution will not be enough. On the other hand, the Trump administration must be careful to avoid escalating a crisis without adequate preparations to ensure that the administration is not entrapped by North Korea into an outcome unfavorable to U.S. interests.
There has been growing Congressional interest in an expanded secondary sanctions regime against North Korea, especially against Chinese counterparts with business interests in North Korea. There is also support for utilizing unilateral financial measures more aggressively to cut off the money flow to North Korea, even though existing U.N. sanctions have virtually quarantined North Korea—on paper. China has less grounds to object to U.S. self-defensive measures following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. But the task of applying those sanctions in practice requires cooperation from the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, the Russians, as well as other members of the international community.
In addition to sectoral bans on coal and seafood products, China and Russia will be under great pressure to agree to an oil embargo and a cut-off of support for North Korean laborers working abroad. While these measures may bring additional financial pain and isolation to North Korea’s leadership, they will take time, and they occur against the backdrop of rumors that Kim Jong Un has stockpiled significant petroleum reserves in order to ride out likely repercussions of an international oil embargo on North Korea. But time is increasingly not on Trump’s side.
Preparations for conventional military action against North Korea would run up against a variety of obstacles. Evacuation of expatriate civilians from and positioning of augmented U.S. forces in South Korea would take weeks if not months and could trigger North Korean preemptive measures. Plus, South Korean President Moon Jae In has insisted that no military action should take place on the peninsula without Seoul’s concurrence. North Korea is probably counting on South Korea to restrain the United States from unilateral military action against it given that up to one million South Korean casualties could result from a retaliation by Pyongyang. A preemptive decapitation strike would likely face the same risk of North Korean retaliation.
Finally, Trump could talk to Kim, even at risk of acquiescing to the reality that North Korea is a nuclear state. Clearly, North Korea is using the tests to shape the strategic environment in its favor. But there is slim evidence that Kim is ready or willing to talk, given that he has to date had no interaction with any other international leader, and there are no indications that North Korea is willing to negotiate a compromise or make concessions.
North Korea’s sixth test pushes the United States closer to a strategic choice between two unacceptable options : acquiescence to North Korea as a nuclear power, or “catastrophic” military conflict to permanently end the North Korea threat. Even if North Korea were to be recognized as a nuclear state, it is not clear that Kim’s sense of vulnerability would be reduced. Kim must not be allowed at all costs to export his vulnerability to the rest of the world: that should be Trump’s primary goal.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.