North Korea is the greatest test of the Trump presidency

When Donald Trump took the oath of office as our 45th President, he inherited one of the most complex national security and foreign policy situations a U.S. president has faced since President John F. Kennedy stared down Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It is an international chess game with no good options and no room for error.  It is the 59th minute of the 11th hour.  Time has just about run out and now is the time to play all the cards we are holding.

As President Trump reviews all options to keep America safe from a rogue nuclear North Korea, it is important that he have all intelligence that exists as he begins to play his hand.  And this includes open source intelligence (OSINT) where 90 percent of our intelligence comes from and which, unfortunately, has not been a priority of our intelligence community.

Here is what OSINT tells us now about North Korea:

-          Pyongyang’s recent hydrogen nuclear bomb test was probably not its first hydrogen bomb test, but most likely its second. On January 6th, 2016, North Korea detonated a device at Punggye-ri, with Iranian nuclear scientists present. A magnitude 5.1-5.2 tremor was detected. Pyongyang confirmed that the detonation was a hydrogen device. The Obama White House insisted (for political reasons) that it was not a hydrogen bomb and downplayed the North Korean achievement. Our Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) thought otherwise and got it right.

-          This weekend’s hydrogen bomb test was probably not North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, but rather its eighth. Two other nuclear tests in 2010 went largely undetected by the Western world.

-          North Korea possesses electromagnetic pulse nuclear warheads/devices, which are of Russian origin.

-          Right now, North Korea is transporting missiles and launch vehicles into mountain tunnels. One South Korean news agency reported that an ICBM was seen at night being moved to North Korea’s west coast.

-          Something is going on under the radar in North Korea from an economic standpoint. While, hunger/starvation has always been a major issue, it is much, much worse and beginning to cause problems with the North Korean people. Here, we see North Korea suffering its worst drought in decades. Further, seasonal crop production is down one third from last year. North Korea is having a tough time feeding its own soldiers, and there are reports of military officers ordering their solders to steal corn from North Korean farmers.

-          Kim Jong Un obviously feels insecure and has hired 10 ex-KGB agents to train his own bodyguards.

-          North Korea is using Russian technology in its ICBMs. Specifically, the electronic guidance systems and some of the RD-250 rocket engines are of Russian origin.

-          Preparations are underway in North Korea for an ICBM – or even submarine – launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch. In fact, last year North Korea successfully test fired an SLBM for the first time.

-          Iranian nuclear technicians are on the ground in North Korea. Signs point to September 9th as the possible date for the test of the joint Iran-North Korea miniaturized nuclear device, which is basically the design package of the infamous Pakistani scientist, Dr. A.Q. Khan. September 9th is North Korea’s “July 4th” and is known as Foundation Day. Last year, September 9th, 2016, marked the last nuclear test of the Hermit Kingdom before this most recent hydrogen bomb test.

Today, we finally have an American president who is confronting the North Korean nuclear threat and showing real American leadership. OSINT is just one effective tool he needs to have an accurate picture of the intelligence landscape in North Korea. As he makes his moves to protect the American people from a nuclear North Korea, he can learn much from the leadership example of President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy undertook to never again trust just institutional so-called “experts,” but to seek broader expert advice. President Kennedy had good intelligence that the Soviets did not know he had and thus, was able to deftly play his hand. In addition, JFK modified the National Security Council (NSC) and actually brought in experts, such as one who knew Khrushchev’s background and thought process. And yes, while President Kennedy proved to be a Commander-In-Chief with ice water in his veins, who stared down the “Russian Bear,” he was able to do so because he had done his homework and had thought through every contingency. 

President Trump thus far has made all of the right moves on North Korea. It is a situation he did not create, but inherited. His next decisions will be absolutely critical to hopefully resolving the North Korean nuclear threat, and he can learn much from President Kennedy’s leadership and decision making process during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As President Kennedy said, “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.”

Van D. Hipp, Jr. is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army.  He is the author of the newly released book, "The New Terrorism:  How to Fight It and Defeat It."  All of the author's proceeds go to the National Guard Educational Foundation to fund scholarships for children of fallen Guardsmen.  www.thenewterrorism.com   Follow him on  Twitter @VanHipp