January 18, 2018

This article is part of a series reflecting on the first year of the Trump administration. 

North Korea’s march toward a nuclear weapon presented US President Donald J. Trump with his first international crisis. Though difficult to see against the backdrop of missile tests and inflammatory rhetoric, Trump’s approach to the situation has maintained a significant degree of continuity with the policies of his predecessors. He has been unconventional and unforgiving in many ways, but has taken a policy stance which conveys US expectations and is geared toward a check on North Korean nuclear ambitions. The success of that policy remains uncertain.

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What was US policy prior to Trump?
US policy toward North Korea during the administration of former US President Barack Obama years was defined by the term “strategic patience.” This meant that the United States, in concert with allies and partners, would pursue diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. They aimed to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to at least freeze his country’s nuclear and long-range missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief and confidence-building measures.  Strategic patience also included robust military readiness and training, enhancing ballistic missile defense capabilities, demonstrating military readiness, and utilizing covert tools to sabotage the North’s ability to wage war. Finally, it involved tightening sanctions and containment of North Korea’s economy to compel better behavior.

Strategic patience depended upon US cooperation with partners and allies. The Obama White House achieved modest progress at the United Nations and with China in reducing the flow of goods and trade between the world and North Korea. The Obama administration also followed tradition by cultivating stronger trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, despite historical enmity between the two that is never far below the surface.
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Strategic patience, like its predecessor approaches, had negligible effect on the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK). China (and Russia) ensured that UN sanctions had limited bite. North Korea continued to make strategic strides toward nuclear weapons, and allied defenses were no closer to shielding South Korea’s capital city Seoul from its catastrophic vulnerability to North Korean massive rocket and artillery arsenal. North Korea conducted four nuclear detonations and dozens of medium and long-range missile tests between 2008 and 2016.  By 2017, North Korea was on the cusp demonstrating the ability to launch a missile capable of reaching the US homeland.

What has Trump said/done on this issue? Despite the inflammatory rhetoric which has defined Washington’s relationship with Pyongyang, Trump’s North Korea policy has changed little from that pursued by previous administrations. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all pursued a host of carrots and sticks to try and deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Trump has followed in their footsteps insofar as to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to South Korea’s defense in June 2017. Further US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has affirmed that, as has been the existing policy, there will be a military response to any missile launched at the United States from Pyongyang. The biggest actual change in policy has been Trump’s unwillingness to formally offer any incentives to the North and add non-starter preconditions to dialogue.

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Though he has not drastically departed from policy precedents vis-à-vis Pyongyang, Trump has broken profoundly from his predecessors rhetorically. Trump initiated a series of crass tweets and bombast in response to a series of North Korean nuclear tests in the summer of 2017, and they have become more inflammatory and threatening with each new fired missile. This approach has escalated the crisis and undermined vital predictability. Taunting Kim by calling him a “little rocket man,” and the outsized stridency of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have proved destabilizing measures and, if there is any military action by the DPRK, will harm the United States. Their shared dismissiveness of recent bilateral talks between South and North Korea undermines trust and stability while diplomatically isolating the United States.

Trump also has continued the multi-administration effort to bolster homeland ballistic missile defenses, doing so with significant urgency. In November, he requested $4 billion in emergency defense dollars for 2018 to “support urgent missile defeat and defense enhancements to counter the threat from North Korea.” In December, Japan made the weighty decision to bolster its missile defense capabilities. This decision also strengthens US missile defenses.

How has policy changed under Trump? There is far more practical continuity than change in Trump’s North Korea policy. China has tightened its sanctions on the North following Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear test in September and intercontinental ballistic missile test in November. North Korea surprised many by reaching out to South Korea in December, and the two sides appear to be entering a new round of potential confidence building. US ballistic missile defenses are being enhanced with urgency.   

That said, the fundamentals of US policy have not changed, and the Trump administration has demonstrated little diplomatic deft or innovative ideas to alter underlying dynamics. North Korea continues its march toward holding the US homeland hostage to nuclear blackmail. China has not shown willingness to usher in the collapse of the North Korean state. Beijing fears a pro-western, unified Korean Peninsula with a US troop presence more than it does North Korea’s cravenness and burgeoning nuclear arsenal. North Korea still knows the United States and South Korea cannot stop DPRK rockets and artillery from killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in Seoul.

The ultimate check remains in place; North Korea will be eliminated if it initiates nuclear war. However, below that threshold, North Korea will continue to hold many advantageous cards.

Todd Rosenblum is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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