The U.S. is responding to North Korean provocations with the same thinking that has allowed the problem to persist for decades.
The threat is growing, as North Korea has nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile that leading experts assess can strike targets deep into American territory, but the U.S. approach to the North Korea problem remains largely unchanged, probably because the U.S. is uncertain about its options.
Young North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un warned in his New Year’s address that his country was close to testing an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear payload to the U.S. In response, Trump tweeted, “It won’t happen!” After that announcement, North Korea continued its steady march to an ICBM unimpeded. North Korea has launched well over a dozen missiles this year, testing new short-, medium-, intermediate-, and long-range missiles. The North has also successfully tested surface-to-air missiles and coastal defense cruise missiles.
“Our problem is that we are scatterbrained, reactive, and have no objective,” Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, a international security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “We’re reactive. Who’s in the driver’s seat? Not us.”
North Korean provocations are followed by meaningless ceremonial condemnations, calls for increased international pressure on North Korea with an eye on China and typically a show of force. The problematic cycle repeats itself a few weeks later when North Korea fires off another missile or tests a nuclear device. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
In the wake of North Korea’s second ICBM test Friday, President Donald Trump condemned the test, declaring the North’s actions to be “reckless and dangerous.” He later expressed disappointment in China’s failure to resolve the North Korean problem, while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley argued that China must act.
As for the show of force, the U.S. and South Korea conducted a joint precision-firing drill, just as they did after the July 4 ICBM test. The U.S. also dispatched two B-1B Lancers to the Korean Peninsula for exercises with American allies, a response which has become routine after North Korean missile tests.
“The diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in March, announcing that the Obama-era policy known as “strategic patience” has ended.
While continuously stating that all options are on the table, the Trump administration is pursuing a strategy of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which involves deterrence, sanctions, and increased international pressure.
“Right now, the maximum pressure policy is anything but,” Bruce Klingner, the former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea branch and now a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, told TheDCNF, explaining that despite its notably tough rhetoric, “the Trump administration has not yet distinguished its policy from that of its predecessors.”
“We’ll handle North Korea,” Trump said at a Monday cabinet meeting. “We’ll be able to handle North Korea. It will be handled. We handle everything.” The Trump administration appears to be pinning its hopes on China, half-hearted sanctions, and tough talk, but no one seems to know what will happen if and when that approach fails.
North Korea has been threatening to launch a devastating nuclear strike on the U.S. for years, often significantly exaggerating its capabilities, but the North is rapidly turning rhetoric into reality.
Further testing is required for North Korea to overcome key obstacles, such as the development of a survivable re-entry vehicle, and field a reliable, nuclear-armed ICBM, but the North will realize its aspirations eventually. The Pentagon assesses that North Korea will develop a nuclear-armed ICBM capable of striking targets across the U.S. as early as next year, two years earlier than previously expected.
The U.S. still has options, but time is running out.
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