President Trump, like his predecessors, faces a poor set of options when it comes to North Korea.
Because North Korea could wipe out much of Seoul, South Korea, with a missile attack, Trump’s promise of “fire and fury” in response to North Korea’s threats, while appealing to a segment of Trump’s base, is a decided risk.
Past presidents have sought other options to try to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, though none have been successful.
Here is what could be next for Trump.
Return to negotiations
A new negotiation with North Korea strikes many watching the latest development as unlikely.
“North Korea has provided no indication whatsoever that it is interested in denuclearization,” noted Bruce Klingner, the CIA’s former deputy division chief for South Korea.
“There’s nothing the U.S or Korea can offer to induce them to abandon their nuclear arsenal,” he said. “They’re willing to talk about a peace treaty or fight, but they want to be accepted as a nuclear state.”
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, agreed that a negotiation was an unlikely option for a White House that has asserted a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable.
“With North Korea holding three Americans captive and North Korea unwilling to deal away its nukes, there is no basis of foundation for talks,” he said.
The United Nations’ latest resolution targets North Korea’s primary exports of coal, iron, lead, lead and seafood, as well as banks and joint ventures with foreign companies.
The new sanctions, which aim to cut $1 billion — roughly a third — of the country’s annual foreign revenue, are the most severe yet on Pyongyang.
Yet there is more the international community could do.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday visited Thailand to push that country to do more to cut funding streams for North Korea.
Klingner, now with the Heritage Foundation, said there’s a misconception among those in Washington that North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned and cut-off nation on Earth.
“The reality is we’ve done things to other nations that we haven’t done to North Korea,” Klingner said. “There’s more that could be done.”
Increase pressure on China
China has voted to move new sanctions against North Korea in response to the country test-firing two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July.
But the Trump administration is hoping for more action on that front.
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and main source of food and energy, and Washington wants Beijing to use its leverage to bring the erratic nation to heel.
Kazianis says Trump should call Chinese President Xi Jinping, or call him out on Twitter, and “explain the days of China looking the other way when it comes to North Korea are over.”
“Beijing must enforce the sanctions within 30 days — or else. If not, America will have no choice but to consider a massive recalibration of the U.S.-China relationship,” Kazianis said.
“We don’t want to wake up one morning and discover Kim Jong Un has tested a hydrogen bomb — the next milestone for the North Korean regime — when China could have helped us take away the resources to make that happen.”
Patrick Chovanec, managing director of Silvercrest Asset Management, said going after Chinese banks and companies doing business with North Korea is a strong possible move, but “the question is: How wide and aggressively do you cast that net?”
“I’ve heard some argue we should purposely try to use sanctions to undermine the stability of China’s banking system,” Chovanec said.
Klingner said the United States has seen time and again that China turns a blind eye on weapons proliferation. He suggests financial sanctions.
“The U.S. imposed $12 billion in fines on European banks for money laundering for Iran. We haven’t imposed a single penny in fines on any Chinese bank,” Klingner said.
Tighten alliances with South Korea and Japan
The U.S. military has stepped up its show of force through recent joint military drills with Japan and South Korea.
The Pentagon is also considering a request from South Korea to allow it to develop more powerful ballistic missiles.
Walid Phares, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump, told The Hill a closer bond with Japan and South Korea, coupled with a deeper dialogue with China, may help to “show North Korea that the entire world is now against it.”
“What most impresses the North Korean regime, politically, is a united U.N. Security Council position and joint actions by the international community to isolate Pyongyang,” Phares said.
The council’s latest sanctions against North Korea’s ICBM testing “is the kind of development that would push the dictatorship to slow down its activities.”
But such a united international front can only work if the United States “is leading a coordinated campaign with its East Asian partners to deter North Korea with a display of military power,” Phares said.
“If these three developments are taking place simultaneously, it would be the combination that could stop and even reverse Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior.”
A pre-emptive military strike
Viewed as the last and most severe response from the Trump administration, a pre-emptive military strike has been floated as a serious option this week.
Past administrations have considered limited strikes targeting North Korean testing facilities, but such a plan has never been implemented.
Options discussed among some in Trump’s circle include using U.S. missile defenses to shoot down the next ballistic missile test or take out launchers and testing facilities on the North Korean peninsula.
But analysts and politicians alike warn that it’s not clear how much a limited strike would achieve, or what kind of response it could provoke.
Kazianis said a military strike to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons would just end up killing millions.
“Assume, for example, Kim Jong Un has 60 nuclear weapons. If we strike and miss one or two weapons, he will attack Seoul, or Tokyo or possibly Los Angeles. No one will take that risk,” Kazianis said.
Experts have said the range and length of North Korea’s last two missiles’ flight indicates the nation has the capability to hit North America. U.S. military officials note, however, that North Korea is still a ways off before it is able to target specific locations.
Klingner agreed that any pre-emptive strike currently under consideration is “dangerously provocative” and could lead to an all-out war on the peninsula.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from considering the option.
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamLawmaker: Trump firing Mueller ‘would cross a big line’Five tough decisions for the GOP on healthcareLawmakers target horse meat tradeMORE (R-S.C.) said earlier this month that Trump is willing to go to war with North Korea to prevent an ICBM from reaching the United States.
“He has told me that. I believe him,” Graham said on NBC’s “Today.”
Klingner, the chief of the CIA’s Korea branch during the 1994 nuclear crisis with North Korea, said that the situation now is more serious since the last standoff.
“We have a more unpredictable U.S. president, we know less about the North Korean leader than we did then and North Korea has a much greater nuclear missile delivery capability than they did in 1994,” he said.
“So things are getting very dicey, even by Korea peninsula standards.”
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