DN - Defence Notes

North Korea offers up challenge for Trump

11th January 2017 - 06:01 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei


As North Korea prepares to test its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump will face tough choices on how to rein in a country dedicated to obtaining an advanced nuclear-weapon capability. 

A North Korean ICBM, armed with a nuclear warhead capable of surviving an atmospheric re-entry, would give Pyongyang its first capability of striking the continental US.

In November, the Obama administration conveyed to the incoming Trump administration that it considers North Korea a top national security priority.

However, Trump has confused many in the Washington establishment with mixed messages. In February 2016 Trump called for Kim Jong-un’s removal, to ‘make him disappear’. This was interpreted as ‘assassination’ by many in the media, but Trump then later suggested the option of a surprise meeting between himself and Kim to ‘chat over a burger’.

Nevertheless, such tough talk faces limited choices. An assassination would destabilise the regime and cause a massive humanitarian crisis. A military strike could result in retaliation against South Korea and/or Japan with either conventional or nuclear strikes.

One expert on North Korea, Bruce Bechtol, believes sanctions are still the answer. ‘The right sanctions are already in place, but they have not been enforced as they could have been in the Obama administration.’

Trump’s administration may choose to use Treasury Department initiatives to go after banks located outside North Korea, as was done with Banco Delta Asia (BDO) in 2005, but later abandoned in favour of dialogue.

Bechtol, who wrote the book North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era: A New International Security Dilemma, said the BDO initiative put real pressure on North Korea and hurt its acquisition of materials and cash for nuclear programmes. 

‘The strength and gravitas’ of American money can force banks outside of North Korea, especially small banks in places like China and Southeast Asia, to stop doing business with North Korea if it means losing business from the US, South Korea and Japan.

Still, would a Trump administration tolerate an ICBM test launch and further nuclear tests that threaten the continental US with just sanctions? The Obama administration was criticised for failing to respond to North Korea’s recent tests of the KN-02 Toksa short-range ballistic missile, Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), KN-08 IRBM/ICBM, KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile and KN-09 anti-ship ballistic missile.

Michael Raska, a military specialist at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said a Trump administration might incorporate a new policy that relies on hard power – such as a ‘tailored deterrence strategy’ that contains options for pre-emptive strikes in case of imminent use of North Korean nuclear weapons, while providing a US nuclear umbrella within the US-South Korea alliance.

In the meantime, the US could strengthen its ‘tailored sanctions’ policy against North Korean elites, primarily by seeking leverage over China to rigorously implement them. Beijing again, however, places a greater strategic priority on the status quo to prevent a North Korean implosion, Raska said.

A military attack on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities would have to locate and penetrate numerous underground sites dotted around the country. There would be no guarantee they would be destroyed, and it might result in a North Korean military response. Seoul is well within range of North Korean artillery and rockets.

The US has already responded with the promised deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system in South Korea, and there are also calls within Washington’s defence community to push for wider deployment of SM-6 air defence systems. 

China has reacted negatively to the THAAD deployment, citing the system’s threat to stability in the region. Ironically, Beijing has raised this complaint without mentioning THAAD’s ability to neutralise Chinese ballistic missiles in the area.

An outside-the-box approach, according to Raska, would be for the US to recognise North Korea as a nuclear weapon state akin to Pakistan and India, while negotiating a peace treaty that would include provisions for US interests on the Korean Peninsula. 

‘Such a scenario, however unlikely, stipulates a key question whether such a game-changer would change North Korea’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] policies and behaviour,’ he said.

Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, believes Trump is apt to put a premium on deterrence and defence.

Cronin also believes Kim might leverage North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear-armed missiles in the midst of democratic transitions. The first of these is South Korea’s impeachment crisis facing President Park Geun-hye, plus the traditional testing of a new US president by North Korea and China.

Trump’s campaign statements might have buoyed North Korea when Trump said Japan and South Korea should take on more of the financial burden for their own security. Such talk shook Seoul, which has relied on the US to assume wartime command during a crisis.

Trump’s policy of peace through strength, remaining unpredictable and seeking deals, will no doubt rewrite the relationship between the US and the Korean Peninsula. The question is whether the new relationship will be born in blood.

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