Boxed into a corner? 4 ways Donald Trump could deal with North Korea

Story highlights

  • Trump tweeted saying that North Korea won't test a long-range missile
  • Analysts suggest Trump should engage with Kim Jong Un

(CNN)President-elect Donald Trump made a bold bet on North Korea, saying the secretive country won't test an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

In his New Year address, North Korea's volatile leader Kim Jong Un said the country was close to doing just that.
"It won't happen," Trump tweeted January 2.
He went on to repeat his claim that China wasn't doing enough to help the US rein in North Korea and its autocratic leader: "China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!" Trump wrote.
But, if his tweets are any guide, analysts say that Trump has backed himself into a corner on North Korea.
They say Trump needs to reach for a new playbook if he really wants to stop Kim from adding to his arsenal a rocket powerful enough to reach any part of the US.
It boils down to these four options.

1. Pulling strings with China

Since winning the election, Trump has suggested at least twice that China -- North Korea's economic benefactor and only real ally -- isn't pulling its weight when it comes to reining in Kim Jong Un's regime.
But analysts say Beijing has no magic wand and is both unwilling and increasingly unable to influence its unruly neighbor.
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Tong Zhao, an associate at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, says that engagement between top level North Korean and Chinese officials has been suspended for quite a while.
"China is frustrated by its inability to push North Korea," said Zhao.
Trump could try and force China to cooperate by undermining its interests elsewhere -- launching a trade war or confronting Beijing over Taiwan or the South China Sea but it would be a high-stakes move, which Zhao says would trigger a "huge negative response."
"From a US-China perspective, it would be a huge waste of (political) capital and energy going after them on North Korea when the US could approach North Korea directly," says John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
When asked about Trump's tweet, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted Tuesday China played an important and positive role in resolving the issue.
The provocative but state-run Global Times newspaper was more critical, saying Trump was "just pandering to irresponsible attitudes."
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2. Tightening sanctions

Trump could push China to beef up and implement existing sanctions more harshly but there's no evidence that sanctions have any impact on North Korea's decision making, says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the US-based East Asia Nonproliferation Program.
"It allows the US and our allies to look busy while the North develops an ICBM," he said, referring to the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missile.
Zhao says that tougher sanctions may risk more brinkmanship -- Kim is a man who can't be bought off.
"I don't see how North Korea will soften its position. They see a nuclear deterrent as absolutely crucial to ensure the country's survival. Only once they have it, will they devote resources to the economy."

3. Launching military action

It's still a matter of debate how big a risk North Korea poses militarily and whether it could really put a nuclear warhead on a missile.
It conducted two nuclear tests in 2016, one in January, and another in September, it's most powerful ever. It's also tested a string of missiles, both land and sea launched.
So far, North Korea hasn't developed a delivery system capable of reaching beyond Asia but the fact North Korea remains the only country on Earth to test a nuclear weapon in the 21st century means that any military effort to take out Kim's regime is unimaginably high risk.
North Korea's closest neighbors are the most vulnerable targets to nuclear or conventional weapons, of which Pyongyang has an ample arsenal. South Korea would have to be prepared for potential devastation if Kim were to strike.
"It's not a viable option. We are way past pre-emption," said Delury. There are few other aggressive actions available, he added. North Korea has no diplomats the US could expel.
"North Korea is hard to punish because it has so little to lose. This is why it's different to Iran -- where there was an economy integrated with Europe, a middle class that we could use as leverage."

4. Sitting down with Kim

On the campaign trail, Trump said he would be happy to host Kim for a visit, saying in June "what the hell is wrong with speaking?"
The comment appeared off the cuff and hasn't been repeated but Zhao and Delury both said that engagement was the only option if Trump wanted to make any head way with North Korea.
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"I do think it's the way forward. It was a fleeting moment of Trumpian brilliance. He has the right instincts," Delury said.
A US president meeting with the leader of a rogue regime known for its massive human rights abuses would be a hard sell domestically, Delury stressed, but wild card Trump might be capable of pulling it off.
"You could imagine Trump in Pyongyang in a way you couldn't imagine Hillary Clinton," he said.
Zhao said that North Korea had refrained from making any provocations since October and appeared to be willing to engage with a Trump administration.
Trump could potentially be the "American president who prevented North Korea from obtaining the ability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon," Zhao added.
"You only get a big breakthrough when two leaders actually talk to each other."