The Trump administration has stumbled through its first weeks in office — lurching, haphazardly, from one self-created crisis to another. By the first week of March, the president was already consumed by rage; his staff, by bitter divisions. Relations between the White House and the federal bureaucracy were already soured by mutual distrust; and the administration’s messaging, especially on foreign policy, had become riddled with contradictions.
This is what the Trump presidency looks like when the economy is (relatively) strong, and there is no major foreign or domestic crisis demanding immediate executive action.
Soon, we’ll get to see what the Trump presidency looks like when one of the most vexing problems in American foreign policy reaches its boiling point.
An authoritarian rogue state with nuclear weapons — and the support of the world’s second-greatest power — has been making progress toward an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the coast of California. And this week, it practiced firing barrages of missiles at America’s military bases in Japan.
Ideally, this is where China would step in, and use its considerable economic clout to discipline its wild-eyed buddies in Pyongyang. But instead of sanctioning North Korea for such acts of aggression, Beijing is sanctioning South Korea for taking steps to protect itself against incoming missiles.
Before we get to that, though, let’s review the details of North Korea’s latest display of bravado. Per the Washington Post:
The four ballistic missiles fired Monday morning were launched by the elite Hwasong ballistic missile division “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan,” [the Korean Central News Agency ] said.
The United States has numerous military bases and about 54,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, the legacy of its postwar security alliance with the country. Three of the four missiles flew about 600 miles over North Korea and landed in the sea, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone off the Oga Peninsula in Akita prefecture, home to a Japanese self-defense forces base. The fourth fell just outside the zone.
“If the United States or South Korea fires even a single flame inside North Korean territory, we will demolish the origin of the invasion and provocation with a nuclear tipped missile,” North Korean state media declared.
Pyongang (probably) can’t put its nuclear-tipped warhead where its mouth is: While the nation has conducted multiple nuclear tests, it has not demonstrated an ability to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile, nor to deliver a missile to a target.
And the missiles that North Korea showed off on Monday weren’t anything new — they’ve tested this same model of weapon before. What’s new is the pace at which the North Koreans fired them.
“They want to know if they can get these missiles out into the field rapidly and deploy them all at once,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute, told the Post. “They are practicing launching a nuclear-armed missile and hitting targets in Japan as if this was a real war.”
The United States responded by deploying the advanced antimissile battery system — Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — to South Korea on Monday. However, it’s not clear that THAAD would be capable of intercepting four missiles at once.
Meanwhile, China warned that South Korea would face “consequences” for deploying the anti-missile system, which it regards as a threat to its military (and an unwelcome act of American meddling in East Asian affairs).
It’s unclear exactly what those consequences will be. But China has already sanctioned the South Korean conglomerate that helped Seoul secure land for THAAD, while restricting Chinese tourism to South Korea.
And soon, China may not be Kim Jong-un’s only friend in the region, as B.R. Meyers explained in a recent interview with Slate:
North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted … The stars are aligning very nicely for the strategy [Kim Jong-un] inherited from his father. Just as North Korea is perfecting its nuclear weaponry, China has acquired the economic power to punish South Korea for improving its missile defenses. Opinion polls in the South now strongly favor the left-wing presidential candidate Mun Jae-in, who in 2011 expressed hope for the speedy realization of a North–South confederation.
If he or anyone else from the nationalist left takes over, years of South Korean accommodation of the North will ensue, complete with massive unconditional aid.
… This went on under George W. Bush, and the alliance survived. Donald Trump, however, is much less likely to allow an ostensible ally to subvert UN sanctions while paying tributary visits to Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-un knows this. He knows that whatever security guarantees Trump gave to Seoul were made to the current conservative administration only. So Kim Jong-un has a better chance than his father did of pressuring the alliance to a breaking point. With China’s support he can pull a left-wing South Korean administration in one way while pushing the Americans in another.
This is a geopolitical crisis that has no easy answer — and we’ve entrusted Donald Trump with finding the right one.