Hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for tough new action toward North Korea on Friday, the nuclear-armed dictatorship thumbed its nose at the Trump administration with the latest in a series of missile tests that Trump officials say could provoke a military conflict.
The test failed quickly and the missile never left North Korean territory. But its timing implied calculated defiance by North Korea’s 33-year-old leader Kim Jong Un. It came a day before President Donald Trump’s 100-day mark and less than 24 hours after Trump warned of the potential for a “major, major conflict” over Kim’s expanding nuclear capability.
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The message seemed to be that two weeks of saber-rattling — which included military deployments and a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to the North Korean border “so they can see our resolve in my face” — had failed to intimidate Kim.
The test, which was North Korea’s ninth since Trump took office, also underscores for Trump officials how hard it will be to halt and then reverse North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs before they can threaten the U.S. mainland. Despite the talk of potential U.S. military action against Pyongyang in recent days, Tillerson finished the week with an emphasis on diplomatic and economic efforts similar in kind to ones pursued by the Obama administration.
Presiding over a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Tillerson called for “a new approach” to the nuclear-armed dictatorship.
“In light of the growing threat, the time has come for all of us to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path,” Tillerson said.
But in broad strokes, much of what Tillerson said was familiar.
U.S. officials have long advanced a policy similar to Tillerson’s call for “increased diplomatic and economic pressure on the North Korean regime” paired with the promise of negotiations. Last February, then-U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power told the same body that forthcoming U.N. sanctions backed by Washington “would constitute a major increase in pressure” on Pyongyang.
Tillerson also asserted a “willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action if necessary,” while adding that “we much prefer a negotiated solution to this problem.”
That echoed remarks from his predecessor, John Kerry, who said in October that sanctions and diplomacy “are entirely preferable, obviously, to the military choice, which … is a last resort and only as a matter of defensive measure to protect our nations.”
Former Obama officials say the main difference in Trump’s approach so far is largely a matter of stagecraft. Trump summoned the entire U.S. Senate to the White House on Thursday, for example, for a briefing on North Korea that many senators called uninformative but which commanded media attention.
Underlying the theatrics, though, Trump’s strategy is mainly based on pressuring China to further constrict North Korea’s economy, something Obama also did — albeit cautiously, for fear of poisoning the U.S.-China relationship. (Beijing fears a sudden collapse of Kim’s neighboring regime and prefers negotiations to extreme pressure.) Soon after the test, Trump sought to increase pressure on Beijing—and deflect attention from himself—by tweeting that North Korea’s action had "disrepected" Beijing.
"It appears from their more formal moves that the official strategy on [North Korea] is not all that different from the one pursued late in the Obama administration,” said Laura Rosenberger, a former Obama White House and State Department official who has worked closely on North Korea policy.
A Trump official said Thursday that the biggest shift is a change in priority for the issue: “Is it different from the Obama administration’s policy? I think it is in the sense that it’s the number one security challenge that we’re facing right now, according to the administration and the president,” said Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, at a Thursday Foundation for Defense of Democracies event.
But even a shift in rhetoric is a meaningful change, say Trump’s defenders.
“The effectiveness of some of the hard instruments of American power depend on its credibility — and that’s where the theatrics of the Trump administration in can be very useful in sending a message to Pyongyang,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told POLITICO after interviewing Thornton.
“So much of this is about psychology, not just diplomacy and sanctions and the use of other instruments of American power,” he added.
Skeptics say the rhetoric and actions of Trump officials has been too scattershot to intimidate Kim and may create an impression of strategic confusion in Washington.
“Their apparently uncoordinated blustery rhetoric, not attached to specific actions, raises questions about their ability to executed a coordinated strategy,” Rosenberg said.
It’s hardly a surprise that North Korea has moved up on President Donald Trump’s agenda. Outgoing President Barack Obama warned Trump in November that the country’s growing nuclear program should be his top national security priority.
Obama White House officials also handed off detailed options for Trump to address the North Korean crisis, though they are unsure whether top Trump aides—including Matt Pottinger and Alison Hooker, the national security council’s top aides for Asia and Korea respectively—have relied on them.
Despite Trump’s saber rattling — including his recent declaration that he had sent a naval “armada” towards North Korea (a statement that proved misleading) — the risks of even a precision strike on Pyongyang render it unlikely for now.
“People who are writing headlines about war have it wrong,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia security expert at the Center for a New American Security. “Kim Jong Un would see any attack on him as a regime-change strategy, and he would respond to an unacceptable degree.”
North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest military and is capable of devastating the South Korean capital of Seoul with a cross-border artillery bombardment. Even an all-out surprise U.S. attack on the North might not be able to prevent a catastrophic counterattack — including, possibly, a nuclear one — that could kill tens of thousands of South Koreans, and many of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country.
"If you are going to do a pre-emptive strike, you’d better get it all,” said a former senior Obama Pentagon official.
Despite occasional reports of planning for a so-called “decapitation,” any strike that could take out Kim and his inner circle would have dangerously unpredictable consequences. Kim’s survival would guarantee all-out war, and his death would touch off a wild scramble for power.
“You could easily end up with a civil war on the inside,” Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in a Thursday talk at at the Center for the National Interest. “We’ll take our side and the Chinese will take their side, and that’s a scenario where the two could start fighting.”
Allison added that a military official in the region had told him Kim’s overthrow or demise would touch off a “vertical track meet” between U.S. and Chinese forces racing to secure the country’s nuclear weapons.
Obama officials studied the military option thoroughly, but concluded it to be impractical short of a dire situation like an imminent North Korean attack. These officials believe that Trump’s team has inevitably reached the same conclusion.
"This is getting hyped up to look like the prelude to the Iraq war,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a former national security council director for non-proliferation in the Obama White House. “People are over-interpreting the language from the Trump administration."
Some former Obama officials were struck by Tillerson’s acknowledging in Thursday NPR interview that he would consider direct talks with Kim’s government.
Tillerson was responding to a question and it was not clear whether he was reflecting considered policy.
Even if it did represent policy, it would not be unprecedented: An Obama administration special enjoy, Stephen Bosworth, held three rounds of talks with North Korean officials in Obama’s first term.