Oh no. Trump is tweeting again.
“North Korea is looking for trouble,” he warned Tuesday morning. He also devoted some of his 140 characters to tell China that the USA would take care of business, with or without them.
Does this tweet mean the president is planning to start World War III? Not likely. When it comes to dealing with the North Korean threat, President Trump is far more likely to pick up where President Obama left off.
Trump has reportedly asked for—and received—a review of the full range of options for dealing with the growing nuclear threat from Pyongyang and the increasingly bellicose Kim Jong Un. That’s the right approach, and there’s nothing novel about it.
U.S. policy has long been “everything is on the table”—the only practical policy when dealing with a regime that threatens to burn your cities to the ground. Circumstances may change, moving matters from the “be prepared for anything” stage to “drastic, decisive action is called for now? But that day is not today.
When the president reviews all the options, the first to drop-off the list is an escalatory military conflict. Most of Seoul, a city of 10 million, is within range of North Korea’s “cone of fire.” An artillery and missile barrage from the North could be devastating. No president would choose, as Option One, a strike that would invite a response that could inflict mass civilian casualties among an ally.
Likewise, the “let’s negotiate” option was probably quickly dropped. Giving into North Korea’s wild threats is exactly what Kim wants. Rushing to talk now would only encourage more provocative actions.
That leaves the suitable and feasible options somewhere in the middle. This includes deterring North Korea with a protect-and-defend strategy. That involves showing our willingness to protect South Korea with missile defenses like THADD and U.S. ground troops, while demonstrating the capacity to reach out and touch the North Korean regime. The latter element is why we now have U.S. strategic bombers circling overhead and U.S. combat ships steaming to the peninsula.
The other part of pressing Kim to back down is to squeeze the regime where it hurts—in the bank account. North Korea Despite what you may have heard, North Korea is not the most heavily sanctioned country on earth.
Yes, a lot of sanctions have been imposed on the regime, as far as paperwork is concerned. But as Heritage Foundation analyst and regional expert Bruce Klingner has frequently noted, those sanctions are not fully and forcefully enforced. China, for example, routinely signs on to new sanctions, then just as routinely stops observing them within a few months.
But cracking down on North Korea is a strategy that has given Dear Leaders pause in the past. Exasperated after trying everything else, even the Obama administration concluded in the end that’s increasingly tighter sanctions are part of the best strategy for now.
So, going back to the tweet, when Trump says we are going to deal with Kim with or without China, likely what he means is that Beijing can voluntarily agree to participate in the sanctioning regime or we’ll do it with a heavy hand—one that will include Chinese firms and individuals doing business with North Korea.
That would make the Chinese very uncomfortable, but Trump seems to be saying, it’ll happen unless they start working harder to get Kim to tone down his act—and his actions. In other words, the free lunch for China is over.
There are no easy answers for dealing with North Korean. There is a sensible package of isolation and defensive measures that can make U.S. policy make sense.
What Trump ought to do—and is most likely to do—is follow this tough-minded but responsible middle course.
James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.