Will Trump Act Alone on North Korea?

Robert Caskey
August 16, 2017

As North Korea continues to push the world closer to the nuclear abyss, U.S. secretary of defense James Mattis and U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson recently defined the United States’ policy toward Pyongyang as “strategic accountability,” in which Washington and its allies are standing fast against Kim’s provocations. While it’s unclear what this new doctrine will entail, wishy-washy diplomatic overtures are unlikely to convince Kim to relinquish his nuclear program. While Donald Trump successfully rallied China, Pyongyang’s only ally, and Russia in passing the recent UN Security Council’s (UNSC) decision to impose “the strongest sanctions ever,” diplomacy has clearly reached its end — as U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said herself.

Only a few days before, the Trump administration put its foot down and proclaimed that the time for talk was over, now that the ICBM test revealed that the North has the capacity to launch missiles to American cities as far as the Mississippi. In a direct and blatant challenge to Washington, North Korea’s state media agency then said that the regime will soon send “unexpected gift packages” and called on the Trump administration to “wave a white flag”. The time to face the regime head-on is now. But what exactly could Trump do?

Pyongyang breaching a new military threshold shows that diplomacy, posturing and the imposition of sanctions have had no significant impact on North Korea’s ruling elite and have failed repeatedly to contain the threat Pyongyang poses to the world. After years of failed “strategic patience” under Barack Obama that have only helped to escalate the threat to America’s security to critical levels, Washington has no realistic diplomatic options to make North Korea surrender its nuclear program.

The limits of diplomacy

While Trump’s dropping of announced steel tariffs may have had something to do with China’s favorable UNSC vote, Beijing is anything but a reliable partner. The Middle Kingdom deeply mistrusts the U.S, and is generally too busy flexing its muscles at Washington instead of using its influence to force Pyongyang into submission. China has even sought to absolve itself of all responsibility on the North Korean issue by arguing that it is up to us alone to reduce tensions on the peninsula. Never mind the $2.2 billion in transactions that Beijing processed on Pyongyang’s behalf or that the regime’s ICBMs are paraded around on Chinese trucks. And China’s enforcement of sanctions has thus far been woefully inadequate anyway. Unwilling to cut the umbilical, Beijing will not suddenly change its ways now.

Even South Korea, the country facing by far the largest and most pressing threat from its neighbor’s tyrannical leadership, has gone “missing in action” in international efforts to pressure Pyongyang into stepping back from the precipice. Rather than addressing the escalating crisis over North Korea’s increasingly aggressive and erratic behavior, South Korean President Moon Jae-in saw fit to postpone emergency discussions with President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in favor of continuing his vacation — does this remind you of certain former American president?

In another act of raging idiocy, Moon has decided to undermine the South Korea-Japan alliance by triggering a review of the “irreversible” 2015 Comfort Women Agreement struck between Seoul and Tokyo. The U.S.-brokered agreement was regarded as a major breakthrough in bilateral relations, and was connected to hopes that both countries would bury the hatchet: Japan issued an official apology and paid millions to victims and their families. But instead of making peace, the Moon regime and an NGO with shady North Korean ties that claims to speak on behalf of surviving comfort women, have decided to up the pressure on Tokyo by building provocative statues commemorating the victims: in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul, in Atlanta, GE, or in Germany.

But even with Seoul in thrall to nationalist sentiment, and China playing hot potato, Trump is not alone. The President and Japan’s Abe agreed to take “further action” against Pyongyang during a lengthy telephone conversation in July. Japanese officials said the two countries would take “concrete” steps to ensure the public is protected from the threat North Korea poses. Despite the tough talking, experts fear military action is not an option, on account of the fact that any retaliation from North Korea would pose an unacceptable level of risk to both Koreans and Americans.

But it wouldn’t be the first time that Trump would prove experts wrong. Since it is now clear that neither China nor South Korea can be counted on, the U.S. and Japan need to call the shots and raise the costs for Pyongyang. While showing strength via launching apparent tit-for-tat intercontinental ballistic missile tests and issuing sanction after sanction can only go so far, a coalition of the willing must now deploy resources and make it clear to Kim that his behavior will not be tolerated.  Otherwise, more apathy will just embolden Pyongyang, which could very easily decide that it is worth launching a nuclear attack targeting the homeland.

Which is why military strikes and covert operations, while not ideal, are better options at this point than doing nothing. And if we were to take Lindsey Graham’s word for it, this is exactly what Trump is thinking: “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face,” claimed the failed presidential candidate on NBC’s Today show.

Trump was right to launch strikes when he learned the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people, and correctly called out Barack Obama for failing to tackle the threat posed by Islamists during his Presidency. For America and our allies, Trump should apply the same lessons to North Korea’s crackpot rogue regime and prevent a psychopath from holding the world hostage to nuclear threat.