North Korea

North Korea just fired another missile. Here's what Trump must do right now

Harry J. Kazianis

North Korea once again launched a missile Friday, advancing its quest to develop the ability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead.

The launch made it feel like the world is living through an updated version of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” – North Korean style. But rather than being a fantasy-comedy about a man reliving the same day over and over, as was the original film starring Bill Murray, the 2017 reboot is a real-life horror story that could end with the deaths of millions of people in a nuclear war.

We all know the drill by now: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the portly Pariah of Pyongyang, fires off a test missile or detonates a nuclear bomb and boasts about how he will soon be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach America. The media covers it all. Talking heads like yours truly go on TV and write op-eds to explain the danger we are all facing, while suggesting ways to avert disaster. 

Rinse and repeat. Over and over the cycle of more provocations by North Korea churns -- and nothing ever happens to halt it. The North Koreans learn from each test and gets closer and closer to being able to attack our country with nuclear weapons. Democratic and Republican presidents talk tough but do little.

Clearly, the time for action is now, and the Trump administration seems committed to a much tougher approach than the failed “strategic patience” policy of President Obama. That’s reassuring because if we do nothing – again – other nations, such as Iran, will get the impression that they too can join the nuclear club and build intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) with no repercussions. Heck, Pyongyang could even speed the process along directly. There could be many more North Koreas in our future.

As I see it, we must take several strong actions in order to stop or at least slow North Korea’s quest for a nuclear missile that can hit America. And there are two things we must avoid.

First, we need to do everything we can to hurt Pyongyang’s ability to fund its missile and nuclear programs. That means full enforcement of all existing economic sanctions. The Trump administration must go after any nation, company, financial intuitions or individuals helping North Korea evade sanctions, because such evasion enables Kim to fund his military machine.

This will require putting intense pressure on China, which is clearly helping its communist ally and trading partner evade the collective punishment of the international community. It’s time to name, shame, and sanction those responsible for Chinese actions that directly or indirectly help North Korea gain weapons that can kill millions. President Trump should impose harsh sanctions on such Chinese firms and individuals, ratcheting the pressure up over time if they persist in their illegal efforts. This will drive a simple point home: we won’t tolerate this anymore.

Second, it’s time to employ cyber warfare on steroids against North Korea. We have an idea, thanks to recent reports, that the Obama administration started such efforts. The Trump administration should not only expand these programs but do everything it can to disable every computer, nuclear centrifuge, missile guidance system, and command and control node in North Korea that has any connection to the rogue nation’s nuclear program.  

Third, we need to dramatically increase our missile defense capabilities in Northeast Asia. Washington must work with South Korea to not only retain its recent deployment of the American THAAD missile defense system but to expand the system. Japan must add THAAD missile defenses as well. Then we need to push South Korea and Japan to link these new systems together. Only a joint effort can help negate North Korea’s growing capabilities and show Dictator Kim we mean business.

Fourth, we must ensure that our homeland is protected from North Korea’s growing nuclear missile capabilities. We should expand dramatically the amount of ground-based interceptors in Alaska to ensure that if North Korea did the unthinkable and attacked us with ICBMS we could destroy such missiles in the air.

We must also discuss what we should not do. For those who are calling for unilateral military action now to once and for all eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat, I would ask you to take a second look. To fully rid the planet of this threat, U.S. air and naval power would have to mass in Asia for months in order to bring to bear enough conventional firepower to have a shot at such a goal. North Korea would have every incentive to strike first, before our forces reached full strength.

If we did launch a preemptive attack we would need to take out every single nuclear missile or warhead in North Korea. If we didn’t, Kim Jong Un would almost certainly retaliate with what he had left against Seoul, Tokyo or maybe even a U.S. base in Asia or the city of Honolulu. Oh, and by the way, even if we did knock out all of Kim’s nukes, Pyongyang could still counterattack with chemical and biological weapons in devastating fashion or decide to launch a massive artillery strike on the South Korean capital of Seoul, setting off a mass panic and a catastrophic death toll. 

On the flipside, there are those who want to negotiate with North Korea. Up until recently, I was one of them. However, you can’t negotiate with those who murder Americans or who hold them hostage, as North Korea does. President Trump should rule out any negotiations. To do so otherwise only invites North Korea to take us for fools time and time again.

The Trump administration has done a brave thing: naming North Korea its greatest national security challenge. It should be commended for doing what many past administrations would not. But now comes the hard part – moving from words to deeds. The cost of inaction is simply too great to wait and do nothing but talk.

“Groundhog Day” was a funny movie. But we can’t afford to repeat our mistakes in dealing with North Korea as if we were trapped in an endlessly replaying time loop like the one in the film. If we fail to act, there will be nothing funny about the ending of our confrontation with Kim Jong Un.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.