By Charles V. Peña
The first real test of President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is likely to be on the Korean peninsula. In January, even before Trump took office, Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea was at “the final stage in preparations to test launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket”—possibly one that could reach the West Coast of the United States. Then President-elect Trump responded via Twitter: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!”
One month later, in a seeming act of defiance, North Korea test fired a Pukgukson-2 medium-range missile over the Sea of Japan. And in early March, it launched four ballistic missiles simultaneously—believed to be extended range versions of the ubiquitous Soviet Scud design—into the Sea of Japan.
Although it had been previously planned and announced during the Obama administration, the missile launchers and other equipment needed for the U.S. to set up a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery arrived in South Korea the day after North Korea test launched its four ballistic missiles. And the White House is currently conducting a review to explore various options to confront North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile ambitions—ranging from sanctions to pre-emptive military strikes to regime change.
So what should the Trump administration do?
Technically, North Korea is considered a nuclear-capable country because it has conducted several nuclear bomb tests. However, it has not been verified—and many experts are skeptical—that the DPRK has been able to develop an actual nuclear warhead that can fit the payload constraints of a missile, which is easier said than done. Moreover, North Korea does not have the long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to reach the United States. So if threat is defined as a combination of intentions and capabilities, North Korea is lacking in the latter.
It is also important to understand Kim Jong-un’s motivations. We assume he wants to directly challenge and threaten the United States— even take military action against us. But it is just as—if not more—likely what Kim Jong-un wants is something else: to secure his own survival and that of his regime, much like his father and his father’s father before him. That would certainly explain the executions and assassinations of those—including family members—who might usurp him. And having nuclear weapons would seem to be an effective deterrent against regime change. After all, other dictatorial leaders who gave up their weapons programs—such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—paid a high price for those decisions.
But isn’t Kim Jong-un an unpredictable— even crazy—leader who can’t be deterred? The same was said of Stalin and Mao in their time, yet both those leaders were deterred. Moreover, Kim Jong-un would have to be suicidal to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States since the U.S. has the ability to retaliate with utter devastation.
This means the Trump administration actually has room to explore options short of military action and the apparent red line of “It won’t happen!”
As a candidate, President Trump said, “China should solve that [North Korea] problem and we should put pressure on China to solve the problem.” There’s certainly merit to this approach. After all, China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy. If any country has leverage to exert over the regime in Pyongyang, it is China. An indication China might be willing to play a role is China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks in the wake of North Korea’s missile test at a press conference in Beijing: “Nuclear weapons will not bring security. The use of force is no solution.”
Indeed, the U.S. should be encouraging the countries in the region to deal with North Korea—after all, they are the most directly threatened and have the most to lose. Specifically, both South Korea and Japan need to step up to the plate and not rely on the United States to underwrite their security. Both are wealthy countries compared to an impoverished DPRK—their combined economies are more than 100 times larger than North Korea’s, which means they have greater capacity to spend more on defense, if needed. So, for example, rather than the U.S. THAAD deployment being gratis, South Korea can more than afford to pay for it.
However, the use of military force against another nuclear-armed country is a high risk proposition—maybe not for the U.S. but certainly to South Korea and Japan, both of which are within range of North Korea’s missiles and would be the most likely targets of North Korean retaliation.
The reality is that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle in North Korea and is not likely to be put back. But if we want to prevent future genies from getting out of the bottle, we must re-examine our own policies that have not prevented North Korea, Pakistan, and India from becoming nuclear powers and create incentive for countries – such as Iran – to want to do the same. Starting with regime change against a country that does not represent a direct or imminent threat to the United States.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute.
This piece was originally published by The National Interest on March 19, 2017. Read more HERE.