Trump's rhetoric set up a test of wills with North Korea's Kim Jong Un
Nothing the previous administrations did halted North Korea's nuclear program either
While triggering global geopolitical shockwaves, North Korea’s nuclear test also represents a flagrant personal challenge to President Donald Trump and his strategy of escalating the showdown with Pyongyang with explosive rhetoric.
With his previous threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and warning that the US military is “locked and loaded” to respond to Kim Jong Un’s provocations, Trump set up a test of wills with his unpredictable adversary.
Now, with his nation’s most powerful nuclear detonation Sunday and a string of missile launches, including one over Japan, Kim has effectively called the President’s bluff, escalating a dangerous foreign policy crisis.
Trump’s options to prevent North Korea twinning a nuclear device with an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US are narrowing, and with each North Korean move, the time available to act is running out.
Every time that the Trump administration has hiked pressure and rhetoric against Pyongyang, through sanctions, condemnations and military maneuvers and exercises, Kim has upped the ante in its showdown with Trump.
In this, the Trump administration is not alone – nothing the previous three US administrations did to halt North Korea’s nuclear program worked either – with the isolated state on an arc to building a deliverable nuclear device.
Those who support Trump’s bombastic rhetoric say that since sanctions and pressure and diplomacy have in the past failed to slow North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, the President’s more approach is worth a try.
But Trump has injected a particularly personal note into his confrontation with Kim, putting his own personal authority and credibility on the line in a way that worries some national security experts.
Former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday that he believed that Trump’s national security team had framed a coherent policy on North Korea, especially in its effort to impress upon the Chinese the urgent need to use more of its influence to change North Korea’s behavior.
But he said that the approach had sometimes been “inartfully executed” and warned that the President should avoid being drawn in to a mano-a-mano showdown with Kim in the wake of the nuclear test.
“I fear two things. The stray electron, the tweet that just goes out a 5 a.m. and unintentionally creates effects that make this go to a place where we don’t want it to go,” Hayden said. “The other one is this. We just got into a duel with the North Korean chairman, with Kim Jong Un. If we had a choice of weapons, I think it was a bad choice to get into a hyperbole contest with that kind of guy.”
“Mr. President, this is not a manhood issue, this is a national security issue. Don’t let your pride get ahead of wise policy here,” he added.
Authority on the line
While putting Trump’s authority on the line, Sunday’s test also posed a challenge for the administration’s sometimes confusing North Korea strategy, which has oscillated between Trump’s threats and warnings that talks with Pyongyang won’t work and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assurances that dialogue is possible.
It has long been conventional wisdom that military action to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability is all but unthinkable because Pyongyang could send thousands of rockets across the demilitarized zone between the Koreas in reprisal, inflicting huge civilian casualties within a matter of minutes.
Trump’s former political adviser Steve Bannon said in an interview with the American Prospect magazine last month that “there is no military solution” until someone solves the equation that suggests “10 million people” in Seoul could die under a North Korean onslaught.
North Korea's sixth nuclear test
But the White House has insisted that all options, including military ones are on the table. And Trump has given the impression that he might ultimately decide on a military strike – either for strategic purposes, or because he sincerely believes such a move is viable.
Asked Sunday if he would attack North Korea, Trump responded, “we’ll see,” as he left a church service near the White House.
And after a meeting Sunday afternoon with Trump and top advisers at the White House, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reemphasized the military option, warning of “a massive military response” to any threat from North Korea against the United States or its allies.
Trump wanted to be briefed on each of the “many military options” for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, Mattis said in a statement to reporters after the meeting.
“Our commitment among the allies are ironclad,” Mattis said. “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.”
Mattis also called on Kim to “take heed” of the UN Security Council’s unanimous position against North Korea’s nuclear program.
“We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so,” he said.
The alternative to military action would be for the President to accept the reality of a regime as unpredictable as that in Pyongyang having the capacity to hit the US with a nuclear weapon, and to put his faith in traditional doctrines of deterrence.