The intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea tested on Friday, according to arms-control experts, was the first one the country has ever fired that was capable of reaching the continental United States. It was also the regime’s second successful ICBM test in less than a month and came just days after the Defense Intelligence Agency warned the Trump administration that North Korea will likely have the capability of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon within the next year. Put another way: Kim Jong-un is succeeding; the North Korea crisis continues to get a hell of a lot worse; and looking at the White House’s responses over the weekend, it’s still far from clear that the Trump administration has any clue what to do about it — just like the last time North Korea launched a scary missile.
In addition to a boilerplate official statement condemning the launch on Friday, President Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to go after China. A few months ago, it seemed that Trump had happily outsourced deescalation of the crisis to Beijing, even praising them for “at least” trying to help with North Korea.
Of course, as with most of the foreign-policy ideas the president tries to cram into a few tweets, there are some problems with this line of thinking — including some that Trump himself once acknowledged. Trump said that after briefly discussing North Korea with Chinese president Xi Jinping in April, he “realized it’s not so easy.”
As North Korea’s most important ally and largest trade partner, China holds more sway over the rogue regime than anybody. But China’s concerns about North Korea are different than those of the U.S. and its allies. Beijing does regularly condemn Pyongyang’s missile tests and other acts of aggression, but the Chinese government is much less concerned about sanctions or North Korea’s ability to strike the U.S. than they are about the destabilization of a neighboring country. Should the North Korean regime fall — or worse, some kind of nuclear civil war take hold — the consequences for China would be disastrous, as would any kind of large-scale refugee crisis.
And it’s not likely that China would even be able to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons when Kim Jong-un’s regime clearly sees them as the best deterrent in the world against invasion. Furthermore, as many have convincingly argued, the opportunity to denuclearize North Korea has long passed, even though it’s still the stated goal of the U.S. and its allies.
In April, Trump thought he had made a deal with President Xi Jinping to apply more pressure to North Korea but China has not seemed that interested, at least in the economic ways which would give it the most leverage. As for Trump’s claim that the U.S. will “no longer allow” North Korea’s aggression or China’s nonaction, so far it’s unclear how he intends to accomplish that. On Sunday, two administration officials told Politico that a punishment for Beijing, like trade restrictions or economic sanctions, could come as soon as this week — but Trump hasn’t made up his mind yet.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted on Sunday that she was “done talking” about North Korea. She then released a statement in which she rejected the idea that the U.N. Security Council has any influence over North Korea and insisted that China “must decide whether it is finally willing” to take the “vital step” to “significantly increase the international pressure” on Pyongyang. “The time for talk is over,” Haley reiterated. (This is not the first time the White House has talked about being done talking in regards to the conflict.)
While Trump has bragged about the U.S. taking a unilateral approach to North Korea, Haley also tweeted that China, South Korea, and Japan must all step up their involvement because it’s “not just a U.S. problem.” On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added Russia to the list as well, explaining that “As the principal economic enablers of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program, China and Russia bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability.” Tillerson has also previously called for the U.N. Security Council to pressure North Korea, but Haley now says the U.S. isn’t going to waste its time with that.
Talking aside, the administration also tried to show some force over the weekend. The U.S. and South Korea conducted a joint missile drill on Saturday, and two B-1B bombers flew over the Korean peninsula on Sunday, linking up with fighter planes from Japan and South Korea to test their “combined capabilities,” according to the U.S. military. The commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces added that “If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing.”
And on Saturday night, the U.S. shot down a test-fired ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean using its THAAD antimissile-defense system, which it has already deployed — and wants to deploy a lot more — in South Korea. The THAAD test was also deemed to be a response to the ICBM test, even though the THAAD system is only designed to intercept shorter-range ballistic missiles, not ICBMs.
According to Axios’s Mike Allen, the White House is now planning a big push to deal with North Korea over the next week. “The threat has significantly worsened,” a senior administration official told him, which is a level of insight that anyone in Los Angeles who’s read about the range of Friday’s ICBM could offer. Trump’s tweet on Saturday was apparently White House–calculated as part of an upcoming tougher posture. This week, “[L]ook for a combination of military, financial and diplomatic steps to show resolve and increase pressure on the regime,” Allen reports.
Unfortunately, “military, financial and diplomatic steps” are the basic foreign-policy tools that every world power has available to address a problematic country like North Korea, and they are not tools this White House has shown any affinity for using. Even if they did, economic sanctions on North Korea haven’t appeared to make much of an impact in recent years, though new ones are now looming in a piece of legislation that the White House says Trump is ready to sign. The threat of a military strike on North Korea is borderline insane since the regime is perpetually prepared to inflict massive retaliatory damage on South Korea in that event.
Meanwhile, Laura Rozen reported on Sunday that a military analyst “whose mentors are in Trump’s orbit” recently told her that the Trump administration wants to “do” North Korea and Iran in its first year so it could have more national-security capital for 2018.
“I don’t like to talk about what I have planned, but I have some pretty severe things that we’re thinking about, that doesn’t mean we’re going to do them,” Trump explained on July 6 after the last ICBM test. Instead, what’s severe is that the White House has apparently done nothing — and that might be the best we can expect.