North Korea’s latest provocation, a ballistic missile fired over Japan on Monday, threatens to drag the international conflict over its nuclear weapons program back to the precipice of disaster it balanced on earlier this month.
The missile splashed down harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean, but not before triggering warning sirens on the island of Hokkaido.
After a war of words over North Korea’s missile capabilities a few weeks ago, President Donald Trump’s response to Monday’s missile launch has so far been restrained.
“The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday, adding “All options are on the table.”
Experts on North Korea and nonproliferation say this missile test demonstrates that Kim Jong Un’s regime is not scaling back its weapons programs despite new sanctions from the United Nations, the U.S., and Japan and another round of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
“I think their motivations are… to provide a political message to the U.S. and Japan and South Korea that their programs continue with no real restrictions,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former non-proliferation adviser for the U.S. delegation to six-party talks on North Korea in 2005.
Since North Korea has fired missiles over Japan at least twice before, the test is not an unprecedented escalation, but the fact that Pyongyang has specifically said in the past that it was lofting missiles to avoid overflying its neighbors makes it hard to see it as anything other than a provocation.
According to Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, North Korea needs to conduct tests like this if it wants to achieve its ultimate goal.
“It’s clear that North Korea is trying to develop reliable nuclear-capable missiles that can reach the United States, and to do that, North Korea has to test these longer-range missiles on standard trajectories,” she said.
Tom Collina, policy director at Ploughshares Fund, observed that the geography of the region makes it difficult to conduct such a test without encroaching on some country’s airspace. Compared to China, Russia, and the U.S. territory of Guam, Hokkaido may have seemed like the least bad option.
“Pretty much any direction they shoot, they’re going to have to overfly somebody, so they have to decide who they want to make mad,” he said.
Earlier in August, Trump declared that any threats by North Korea against the U.S. would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Despite that implication of a nuclear first strike, North Korea continued making threats, which Trump again responded to by threatening retaliation “the likes of which nobody has ever seen before.”
When Kim opted days later not to follow through on his threat to rain missiles down upon Guam, Trump applauded the move.
“Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision,” he tweeted. “The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”
After tensions subsided, Trump bragged at a rally last week that Kim is “starting to respect us.”
“You see what’s going on in North Korea,” he told a crowd of supporters in Phoenix. “All of a sudden, I don’t know — who knows. But I can tell you, what I said, that’s not strong enough. Some people said it’s too strong, it’s not strong enough. But Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us.”
Some supporters of the president took Kim’s decision as evidence that Trump’s strategy was working.
“I’m pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week. “We hope that this is the beginning of this signal we’ve been looking for.”
After North Korea fired three missiles over the weekend in addition to the one on Monday, that argument may be less convincing. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” though, Tillerson maintained that time will tell whether the administration’s approach is successful.
“We’re going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign, as I have described it,” he said, “working with allies, working with China as well, to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table with a view to begin a dialogue on a different future for the Korean Peninsula and for North Korea.”
Former Obama National Security Council spokesman Ned Price has argued that, rather than resolving the standoff, Trump’s tough talk created and sustained it. Writing for Foreign Policy, Price observed that the president’s “fire and fury” threat came after a Washington Post report based on leaked details about North Korean weapons capabilities that he presumably had already been informed of, not a deliberate provocation from Pyongyang.
“What the world witnessed was an entirely manufactured crisis magnified by an irrational response from an American president eager to display bravado and bluster on the world stage,” Price said.
Trump’s reaction to typical over-the-top North Korean rhetoric was firing similar rhetoric back at them. Meanwhile, administration officials were publicly talking up a diplomatic resolution, a mixed message that may have confused both the North Korean regime and U.S. allies.
“What Trump failed to recognize is that the United States cannot, and should not, attempt to out-Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un,” Price wrote. “Doing so trained the fears of our regional allies just as much on the unpredictable nuclear leader in Washington as the one they had long feared in Pyongyang.”
Even before Monday’s test, Davenport saw no indication that Trump’s threats had succeeded.
“I don’t think that President Trump’s threats worked at all,” she said. “Vague threats just invite further chance for miscue or miscalculation. North Korea knows that engaging in any conflict with the United States would likely lead to the downfall of Kim Jong Un’s regime. For a country that prioritizes regime survival, that’s not an option.”
Collina noted that Trump backed down from his threats to take extreme action against North Korea for its rhetoric too.
“Both had to pull back from the brink because things were getting dangerously hot,” he said.
According to Ruggiero, Trump’s threats were aimed at underscoring the military consequences of an attack on South Korea or other allies, but missile tests alone are not a clear measure of whether North Korea’s weapons program is neutralized.
“Does this get us any closer to denuclearization or the end of its nuclear program?” he said. “The answer is no.”
Although Trump claimed Tuesday that “all options are on the table,” realistic options for retaliation that would not risk a full-scale nuclear war are pretty limited.
The White House has issued a strongly worded statement of denunciation, and Davenport expects a similar statement from the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. and South Korea are already in the midst of military training exercises that the Kim regime sees as a threat.
Any direct military action could trigger a response from North Korea with conventional weapons that decimates populous cities in Japan or South Korea. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon undermined the credibility of Trump’s military threats in an interview with the American Prospect days before leaving his job earlier this month.
“There’s no military solution, forget it,” he told Robert Kuttner. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
Bannon is not wrong, experts say.
“Every administration says all options are on the table and that’s always true… but there’s no good military option here,” Collina said.
He recommends negotiation to try to defuse North Korea’s nuclear program. If that fails and Kim does obtain nuclear weapons that can cross the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. may need to rely on deterrence as it has with Russia and China.
“Negotiating in this case is not weakness,” Collina said. “It’s the smart thing to do. In fact, it’s the only thing we can do that would reduce the danger that we face.”
More sanctions are an option, although he argued years of sanctions have not prevented the development of North Korea’s weapons programs so far.
Stiff sanctions will only work if they are aggressively enforced by all countries involved, something Davenport said has been lacking in the past. Even then, she believes a parallel track of increased diplomatic engagement is key to averting disaster.
“Sanctions alone are not going to change North Korea’s behavior,” she said. “Sanctions work best when paired with engagement because negotiations offer an off-ramp from sanctions pressure.”
However, Ruggiero cautioned that Kim has shown no willingness to abandon his nuclear dreams.
“They’re not interested in negotiating away their nuclear program no matter what incentives are put forward,” he said.
He sees additional sanctions as the best viable option right now. Also, more can be done to prevent China and Russia from evading them.
“There’s numerous examples of North Korean proliferation activities that have gone unsanctioned,” he said.
Further restrictions would need to be coordinated with allied countries. Ruggiero suggested it may also become necessary to discuss eventual military actions with them if Kim Jong Un’s regime finally crosses a red line that cannot be uncrossed.
“If our goal is denuclearization, we have to start thinking about perhaps what a different regime looks like,” he said.