President Donald Trump inherited a foreign policy mess which has been compounded through years of appeasement, kicking the can down the road, empty threats, and inconsistent approaches. The Atlantic reported, “In the more than four decades since Richard Nixon held office, the U.S. has tried to control North Korea by issuing threats, conducting military exercises, ratcheting up diplomatic sanctions, leaning on China, and most recently, it seems likely, committing cybersabotage.” Today it is generally accepted that there are four possible approaches to dealing with North Korea: A pre-emptive military strike, diplomatic and economic pressure, assassination of Kim Jong Un, and acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state. There are no good options as each of these approaches risk triggering a doomsday scenario.
President Donald Trump appears to favor the route of first attempting diplomatic and economic pressure, but being willing to move to a pre-emptive military strike if this fails. This has been his position for decades. In 1999, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “You go in; you start negotiating. And if you don’t stop them from doing, you’ll have to take rather drastic actions. Because if you don’t take them now, you’re going to be in awfully big trouble in five years from now when they have more missiles than we do.” In that interview, he advocated the possibility of a unilateral pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear reactors, and he noted that such action is the only thing that North Korea fears. Likewise, in a 1999 interview with Tim Russert, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump said:
First, I’d negotiate. I’d negotiate like crazy. And I’d make sure that we tried to get the best deal possible. These people in three or four years are going to be having nuclear weapons. They’re going to have those weapons pointed all over the world, and specifically at the United States. And wouldn’t you be better off solving this really potentially unbelievable [problem]. … And wouldn’t it be good to sit down and really negotiate something? And ideally really negotiate something. Now, if that negotiation doesn’t work, you better solve the problem now than solve it later, Tim. And you know it, and every politician knows it, and nobody wants to talk about it. Jimmy Carter, who I really like, I mean, he went over there. It was so soft. These people are laughing at us. … Do you know that this country went out and gave them nuclear reactors, free fuel for 10 years? We virtually tried to bribe them into stopping, and they’re continuing to do what they’re doing. And they’re laughing at us. They think we’re a bunch of dummies. I’m saying that we have to do something to stop. … Do you want to do it in five years when they have warheads all over the place, every one of them pointing to New York City, to Washington, and every one of our—is that when you want to do it? Or do you want to do something now?
After unsuccessfully leaning upon China to negotiate with North Korea, President Trump tweeted on June 30, 2017, “The era of strategic patience with the North Korea regime has failed. That patience is over.” Negotiations and United Nations sanctions have accomplished little at a time when North Korea’s aggression and military capabilities are becoming increasingly alarming. Having successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, and possessing an estimated 60 nuclear warheads, the North Korean military threat is advancing far more rapidly than many experts had predicted. Most disturbingly, The Washington Post has reported, “U.S. officials concluded last month that Pyongyang is also outpacing expectations in its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the American mainland.”
It appears that President Trump may be considering whether to continue on the path of applying diplomatic and economic pressure, or whether it is time to shift to a preventative approach to dealing with North Korea. Senator Lindsey Graham told The Hill, “I think he’s made a decision long ago, quite frankly, to try to negotiate the threat with North Korea. … But if negotiations fail, he is willing to abandon strategic patience and use pre-emption. … I think he’s there mentally. … He has told me this.”
Presently, two strong and unpredictable leaders are escalating their rhetoric. President Trump has threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In response, North Korea has promised to have a plan for attacking the U.S. territory of Guam by mid-August and has threatened a pre-emptive strike against the U.S. mainland.11 Only time will tell what may be the result of these tactics.
This article is excerpted from the paper “Evaluating the North Korean Crisis.”