Strip the bravado and hype, and two important developments emerged from the news of recent days with regard to North Korea. The first is that in a show of missiles over the weekend, the regime in Pyongyang revealed some new strengths and some uncertainties in its quest to be a global nuclear and missile threat. The second is that the Trump administration has begun to implement a strategy to ramp up pressure on Pyongyang, but along well-known paths.
Assumptions about technological progress based on a military parade can be guesswork, but the weekend’s extravaganza in Pyongyang offered important clues, according to experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. North Korea is moving toward solid-fuel ballistic missiles — displaying both sea- and land-based variants that have been previously tested. Solid-fuel missiles can be quicker to launch than liquid-fueled and, on land, easier to transport and conceal. A second surprise was a nose cone with fins that might indicate progress toward a targeted or steerable warhead reentry vehicle. North Korea also showed off some very long canisters, suggesting a large, long-range missile under development, but the missile itself was not on display. No conclusions can be drawn about a weekend missile test that failed except that North Korea, like all missile and nuclear powers, is testing and presumably learning from success as well as failure. The regime’s intentions are clear, and its capabilities seem to be improving, if uneven.
Now President Trump is throwing his own strategy into gear. Vice President Pence repeated sternly at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas on Monday that the era of President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” is over and warned North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un not to test U.S. resolve. The United States also sent a Navy carrier battle group to the region. Beyond the public psy-ops, which hopefully will not spin out of control into a military miscalculation, it appears the central thrust of the administration’s strategy is to induce China to rein in its client. Trump has explicitly hinted that he will not punish China as a currency manipulator — as he had often threatened — if it helps on North Korea. Certainly, China can do more than it has in recent years, including squeeze North Korea’s energy lifeline. But Trump’s approach has been tried repeatedly, without much success, because China’s leaders, while irked by Pyongyang, do not want to destroy the regime and risk a hostile state on their border. Is Trump driving toward a new outcome with China or the same old dead end?
Trump’s strategy is to crank up pressure, then push for a negotiation leading to denuclearization, stopping short of regime change. This approach makes sense in the short term. The Trump administration is right both to declare a limit to Western patience and to look for a non-military solution. But the horror of Kim’s rule also cannot be overstated, from the reported assassination of his own half brother in Malaysia to systematic and grave human rights violations. As long as North Korea remains a giant prison camp, the long-term problem will not have been solved.