US President Donald Trump’s initial reaction to North Korea’s latest missile launch is consistent with policies pursued by the Obama administration. But the president will need to be better prepared if Pyongyang crosses the red line and successfully develops a long-range missile capability which can threaten the US homeland.
Sunday’s launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea is yet another in a long series of nuclear and missile tests carried out by the communist regime over the past year. Military sources quickly established that the missile was of the intermediary-range rather than the longer-range intercontinental ballistic missile variety – capable of targeting the US west coast – which North Korea has vowed to develop.
Still, the launch represented the first test of its kind confronting the new Trump presidency, and the White House’s response will therefore have been closely watched by Pyongyang for signs of how the new US administration will define its North Korea policy.
The outgoing Obama administration’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ rested on the premise that the US would not negotiate with North Korea as long as the regime continued its development of an advanced nuclear capability. Instead, the administration pursued increasingly stringent sanctions against North Korea both unilaterally and at the international level through the UN Security Council.
This policy was pursued in close cooperation with South Korea and Japan, American allies who are directly threatened by North Korea’s increasing assertiveness and remain protected under America’s extended nuclear umbrella.
Sunday’s test occurred while President Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his golf club resort in Florida. Just in time for primetime Saturday television for US audiences, Trump and Abe appeared in a brief press conference to present a united front in dealing with Pyongyang: Abe called the test ‘absolutely intolerable’ while Trump assured his counterpart that ‘America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100%’.
Trump’s statement thus appears to be a continuation of the policy pursued by the Obama administration: assuring allies in the region that the US will continue its commitment to their defence. Yet that was in itself a novelty, for such a statement was by no means expected; in fact, Trump’s reaction on Sunday stood in stark contrast to the statements he made on the campaign trail. In March 2016, Trump criticised what he perceived as unfair and overstretched US defence commitments abroad, and even raised the possibility that Japan and South Korea might defend themselves against North Korea.
At that time, his statements raised question marks over the future of American military presence and extended nuclear deterrence in East Asia, playing into concerns that Japan and South Korea could seek to acquire their own nuclear arsenals if they no longer trusted US commitments. Perhaps even more worrying for allies were Trump’s statements that he would seek to negotiate with North Korea, and at time even appearing to be complimentary towards the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Trump has shelved these previous campaign trail statements, possibly realising that an active and committed US presence in the region is vital not just to the security of US allies, but also to the US homeland itself. His advisers will also no doubt have reminded him that decades of US nuclear policy have rested on a commitment to counter the further spread of nuclear weapons.
But despite his turn away from campaign rhetoric, Trump’s statement on North Korea’s missile launch could still benefit from further refinement in two key respects.
First, his statement was limited to a single sentence and contained no plans for retaliatory actions or steps to be taken to further counter North Korea’s development of an advanced nuclear capability.
Second, Trump failed to mention South Korea in his statement. While US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited South Korea earlier this month and stated that the administration is committed to South Korea’s defence, such an omission will not play well in South Korea – a country increasingly on edge. These gaps should be rectified in any future response to North Korean provocations.
More significantly, North Korea appears undeterred by international sanctions placed against it, and has continually been able to acquire the technology and materials it needs to continue its missile and nuclear programme. It is now dangerously close to acquiring a capability which could threaten countries outside of its immediate periphery.
It may therefore no longer be a question of whether North Korea will acquire a long-range ballistic missile capability which could target the US west coast, but rather how long it will take for the regime to get there.
President Trump and his administration will need to fine-tune and strengthen their response to any launch of a long-range missile capability should it be successfully developed and tested by North Korea. Furthermore, the president will need to demonstrate a firm commitment to defending US interests in East Asia, and provide assurances containing no cause for doubt in the minds of allies.
Anything less will play to the hands of the Kim regime which will no doubt be watching the administration’s every move.
Banner image courtesy of the White House.
Associate Fellow; Former CFCS Senior Research Fellow, RUSI