War Stories

North Korea Is Now Trump’s Problem

But his administration is utterly unprepared to deal with the dictatorship’s provocations.

Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong-un (here at a parade in 2015) has no incentive to change what he is doing.


For all the storm and turmoil that have kept this president in a near-constant state of agitation, Donald Trump has not yet faced any crises (other than those of his own making) or made a single decision on foreign policy.

This may be about to change, after North Korea tested four ballistic missiles Monday morning, once again flouting U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban such tests and elevating the threat to South Korea and Japan.

No crisis is in the offing just yet, as contrary to initial fears, these were not intercontinental ballistic missiles; their roughly 600-mile flight path fell well short of the range necessary to strike U.S. territory. But North Korea is known to be developing ICBMs, and Monday’s missiles—which could easily hit American bases in Japan and South Korea—were launched from a test site that analysts believe was designed to accommodate long-range missiles.

And so the question the last four American presidents have faced, at various phases, with mixed records, is what to do about the nettlesome dictator of Pyongyang.

Even before the latest missile tests, the National Security Council had embarked on a policy review in the past week, examining options such as patient containment, pre-emptive strikes, and several courses in between. And though the senior members of Trump’s national security team—Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster—have little or no experience in Asia–Pacific issues, a few mid-level officials with deep expertise have survived the post-Obama purges and departures. If Trump is inclined to listen to specialists inside his administration, there are specialists to offer advice and context.

Still, as Trump recently discovered when he looked at health care for more than a minute, this stuff about nukes and North Korea is complicated. Bombing North Korea’s nuclear facilities and missile sites might be tempting, except for three things: Some of these facilities are buried underground or inside mountains; the location of others is a mystery; and any such strike would be an act of war, possibly prompting a wave of attacks on U.S. bases and allies in the region. The retaliation wouldn’t necessarily be with nukes: North Korea has thousands of artillery rockets, some loaded with chemical warheads, many within range of the American garrison in Seoul, only 35 miles from the border.

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would solve the problem of North Korea by pressuring China to get rid of Kim Jong-un, or at least get him to disarm. It is true that China, as North Korea’s largest trading partner and only ally, holds great potential leverage over Kim. But other presidents have tried this approach and Beijing’s unwillingness to act has nothing to do with the skill, or lack thereof, of American negotiators. Though China’s leaders are growing increasingly impatient with Kim’s antics, they don’t want to oust him from power (which is what forcefully removing his nukes would require) for three reasons. First, China would face a humanitarian crisis in its scantly populated northwest region as millions of North Koreans flee the ensuing anarchy. Second, China values North Korea as a buffer between American allies and its own border. Third, compelling U.S. air and naval forces to maintain a presence in northeast Asia limits their firepower in the South China Sea and Taiwan straits, where China’s vital interests reside.

President Bill Clinton did put a halt to North Korea’s nuclear program (or at least to that part of it involving plutonium re-processing), with the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994, and shortly before he left office he came close to wrapping up an accord to bar ballistic missiles.

When George W. Bush was elected president, his incoming secretary of state, Colin Powell, told reporters that he would resume those talks where Clinton had left off—but Vice President Dick Cheney ordered him to take back that statement, after which Bush pulled out of all talks and revoked the Agreed Framework. As Cheney put it in his own public statement: “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.” Two years later, Cheney thought the Pyongyang regime—then led by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, who’d inherited the throne from his father, Kim Il-sung—would crumble after witnessing America’s swift defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq. Yet even after Bush turned up the volume on that message by sending an aircraft carrier and some bombers near North Korea’s borders, Kim Jong-il held firm.

Once Cheney was sidelined in the last two years of Bush’s presidency, attempts were made to restart nuclear talks—but it was too late. When Kim Il-sung first set out to build a nuclear program in the 1980s or early ’90s, he may have been looking primarily for a bargaining chip: leverage to acquire economic aid, energy assistance, and diplomatic recognition. After Bush rejected the chip, Kim Jong-il pursued nuclear weapons for their own sake. Those first two Kims had a pattern of negotiating—there was a way to get them to an agreement—and a few of Clinton’s aides decoded the pattern. But the current tyrant, far more paranoid and sadistic than his elders (who rated pretty high in both), seems to reside on a different astral plane; he may be beyond suasion or influence. The old methods probably won’t work.

Some hold out the prospect of a negotiated freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program. On the one hand, it’s a bit late: Pyongyang already has the material for at least a dozen nuclear bombs. On the other hand, there is no evidence that they’ve shaped and reduced this material in a package that could fit on the tip of a missile. So if a deal included a freeze on missiles, and could be verified, it might be worth a try. But there are no signs right now that Kim Jong-un would be open to such a deal. His grandfather, who founded the North Korean state at the end of World War II, fashioned a strategic posture that he likened to “a shrimp among whales”—a tiny, impoverished country that gains power and maintains independence by playing its larger neighbors off one another. The approach has borne fruit, and still does; why should he give up anything?

At this point, regime change might be the only way out of this mess. But that will probably take a while to accomplish—and the United States can’t, and shouldn’t, be the one to lead it. (No American president would have any desire to restore order in a North Korea that’s been suddenly beheaded, nor would he or she have the slightest idea how to pull it off.)

Meanwhile, the president’s task—really, 90 percent of U.S. foreign policy anywhere in the world—is to maintain and bolster America’s alliances. In this case, it means assuring Japan and South Korea of our commitment to their defense, moving more forces into the region if needed, and prodding China to do more. This last task is a long shot, but it did pay off, to some degree, during the Obama years, when China voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s nuclear program, for the first time, and even joined some economic sanctions.

But before we can do any of this, the Pentagon and State Department need some deputy, under-, and assistant secretaries who have East Asia in their portfolios and who have the authority to speak for the administration—which is to say, Trump needs to nominate some deputy, under, and assistant secretaries. He hasn’t yet done this in his seven weeks as president; apparently he sees no need in having such officials on his team and—in his drive to centralize power and hold his entourage tight—may not want to fill those senior staff jobs, in order keep the State and Defense Departments weak.

Yet Trump may soon discover, possibly under prodding from Mattis and McMaster, that he can’t have a foreign policy without a foreign-policy apparatus. Which leads to another lacuna in this troubled presidency: Trump doesn’t have a foreign policy. I don’t mean that he lacks a grand strategy—grand strategies can be too grand, locking their aspiring visionaries into assumptions and actions that don’t fit realities on the ground. I mean Trump doesn’t have a foreign policy—an approach to dealing with friends, foes, and problems—on any issue, in any part of the globe: Russia, China, the Middle East, Africa, South America, or the Pacific.

What to do about North Korea’s ballistic missiles is the least of the questions we face in Asia—or, rather, it’s a subset of a larger set of questions that we face not just in Asia, but across the span of global politics. What are we doing in the world? What are our goals and interests in the conflicts where we’re fighting and where we’re not fighting? There is no sign that Trump has asked these questions, much less begun to answer them—no sign that he even knows that these are the questions to ask.