On the Brink with North Korea

Americans will watch in anticipatory anxiety as the Trump administration handles its first real foreign policy conflict.

On the Brink

Pyongyang reached a dreaded milestone in its nuclear weapon capabilities on Tuesday, firing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – the Hwasong-15 – which flew 2,800 miles into space and demonstrated the ability to reach any part of the American homeland. The entire United States is now within range of Pyongyang. Or as Defense Secretary Mattis clarified, they can reach “everywhere in the world basically.”

The brinksmanship strategy and nuclear weapon development of North Korea has progressed in defiance of international pressure. As is so often the case with turbulent regimes, treaties and appeasement have had little-to-no effect.

Totalitarian regimes pay careful attention to rhetoric, propaganda, and appearances. After Tuesday’s successful launch, for example, Kim Jong-un declared on state-run television, “we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”

In an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Nikki Haley called upon the international community to cut off all ties with North Korea. She made no qualms about it:

“We have never sought war with North Korea, and still today we do not seek it. If war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”

Haley also turned to China to withhold its crude oil exports to North Korea. China is the main economic backer of North Korea, accounting for more than 80 percent of its foreign trade. She stated:

“We now turn to President Xi to also take that stand. We believe he has an opportunity to do the right thing for the benefit of all countries. China must show leadership and follow through. China can do this on its own, or we can take the oil situation into our own hands.”

U.S. and Chinese generals also engaged in security talks on Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington – a sign that China is more willing to explore how the two world powers can mitigate the growing tension on the Korean peninsula. Trump has drawn a hardline that the U.S. will not accept North Korea possessing the capability to strike the mainland, and he’s putting pressure on China to step up to the plate.

But how did we arrive here?

Agreed Framework

The threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) proves to be a unique foreign policy predicament due to the catastrophic consequences of a single, successful attack. In the midst of the Cold War in 1970, for example, the international community birthed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which now includes the agreement of 191 states.

It is often forgotten that in 1994, President Clinton was prepared to engage in war over intelligence that North Korea had built nuclear warheads. The conflict was narrowly averted when Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to negotiate a non-binding political commitment (which needed no approval from the U.S. Senate) known as the Agreed Framework.

The thrust of the agreement was that North Korea would freeze their nuclear reactors, cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, and remain in the NPT. The United States in turn would provide two light-water nuclear reactors, supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually to assist with their heating and electricity production, and ensure Pyongyang against the threat of nuclear weapons by the U.S.

Tensions rose over the years due to the pesky nature of the Pyongyang regime, and early in George W. Bush’s administration, it labeled North Korea among its “Axis of Evil.” CIA reports at the time suggested that Pyongyang was secretly accelerating its efforts to enrich uranium, and in reaction, the Bush administration cut off fuel oil shipments in 2002. North Korea quickly withdrew from the agreement and intensified their brazen defiance of the international community.

Later, in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT after 18 years of participation, and restarted their nuclear reactor. Efforts were made to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear enrichment program in Six-Party Talks from 2003-07, but they essentially had no effect. North Korea officially discontinued Six-Party Talks in 2009.

Kim Jong-un

As recently as 2013, the Obama administration faced the aggressive posturing of the new supreme leader, a 29-year-old Kim Jong-un (or as the Chinese have nicknamed him, “Kim Fatty the Third”), who at the time put the nation’s rockets into combat-ready status and posed in a picture that included a background map detailing a “U.S. mainland strike plan.”

Four years ago, Pyongyang didn’t have delivery systems capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Obama’s approach of appeasement and strategic stability, however, focused on cutting defense funding, and canceling missile-defense programs before completion. It did nothing to curb North Korea’s continued ICBM development. Now, in 2017, the United States is vulnerable to ICBM attacks from shore to shore.

What a difference a few years can make.

Missile Defense Systems

Earlier this month, President Trump requested an additional $4 billion in the 2018 defense budget for the Missile Defense Agency. The capabilities of silo-based and sea-based interceptors are in a constant state of improvement. Radar detection is advancing, and the goal of shooting a bullet to impact another bullet already in flight is no easy task.

The test record for missile defense is admirable, but it’s not perfect. Now is not the time to neglect missile defense development, and $4 billion is chump change in the federal budget. To put it in perspective, it would take an ICBM 33 minutes to travel from Pyongyang to the United States mainland. What’s worse is that North Korea has used mobile launch sites – making it extremely difficult to preemptively strike a launch pad.

Critics of U.S. missile defense programs argue that systems aren’t perfect, and they underplay the potential value relative to budgetary spending. But if even one American city can be saved from a nuclear attack, the payoff is immeasurable. We can’t accept the alternative.

As Michaela Dodge from The Heritage Foundation explains:

“In testing, we learn more from failures than successes. We stress the system and push it to its limits. Failures allow us to identify weaknesses in the system and fix them. It's a process that has produced ever more reliable defenses.”

Trump vs Kim Jong-un

One is left to wonder whether Washington can utilize a Cold War strategy against North Korea. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked with the Soviet Union and the United States because both states understood the existential conflict of nuclear war, and most importantly, they were both rational actors on the international stage. The fear in this case is that Kim Jong-un’s young age, relative inexperience, and proclivity for hot-headedness could undermine the potential stability of a national security policy like MAD.

By that same measure, Americans will watch in anticipatory anxiety as the Trump administration handles its first real foreign policy conflict. News hit on Thursday that Rex Tillerson is out at the State Department (more dovish), supposedly to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, the current Director of the CIA (more hawkish). The coming months will reveal a lot. There’s no doubt that the Trump administration has inherited a tricky situation that lends itself to external critics and frustrations from within to implement the proper plan – but the margin for error is critical.

When it comes to WMDs, we can’t afford a mistake.

No. 1-4

The truly sad part of all of this is how much the North Korean people are suffering because money and effort is being put into weapons rather than into the needs of the North Korean people. There is no good outcome for the people of North Korea, and most likely South Korea as well. If war is the outcome many more Koreans will die in the process -- and perhaps many more of our military, and possibly civilians if a missle cannot be stopped, will die as well. The biggest question is -- WHY? Why do so many people seem to take power and then use it to abuse the powerless? The answer is clearly written in the bible: Satan prowls abut seeking to devour...!! Unfortunately, too many don't know this, or willfully choose to ignore it.

Matt Christensen
Matt Christensen


Don’t get me wrong, I have much more faith in this administration to handle NK than I did Obama or if Hillary had won. By margin or error being critical, I meant specifically in the case of nuclear weapons. Now that Pyongyang has the ability to launch ICMBs anywhere in America (which they didn’t have even a few years ago), the margin for error has shrunk considerably.

Although the Agreed Framework didn’t materialize entirely (and NK has no true intention of curbing their uranium enrichment), we did indeed supply them with oil and technology. I was by no means endorsing the Agreed Framework.


We really need to be doing what Tom Clancy(Mark Greaney) suggests in one of those great Jack Ryan and Campus novels. That is to have a few ships in the region inspecting ships going to port in NK and stopping that mode of transportation. That would have left fewer options for some of the parts to be shipped and would have narrowed the list down to fewer player supplying NK. We have actually done nothing since 1994 to address the nuclear situation in NK, other than appeasement. There are still too many Neville Chamberlains around, when you need a Nikki Haley or Rex Tillerson on the job. We need to be projecting power better in that region. If we don't China will, and that means NK will be free to remain China's plausible deniability in weapons technology.


However Trump decides to handle it, the media will turn it into nothing, but a three ring circus and how diplomacy, alone, would have fixed everything. They will trot out Madeline Albright and any other living Democrat SecState to criticize the Trump Administration any way possible. This garbage about Tillerson is a precursor to that. The media has been trying to make it appear that the Trump administration has just been in chaos since January. I'm rather tired of it. Unfortunately, there are those on the right, more like purple right or even mauve right who happen to love how the media is portraying the administration. Yeh, sure, his margin of error is critical. I take that to mean you have little trust in Trump, Mattis and Tillerson. I consider the 1994 nonsense that you said about Clinton to be a mischaracterization of Bill Clinton. He just gave to North Korea. That "Agreed Framework" never materialized, except in some paper. The Clinton Administration, or some DNC operative acting under the auspices of the administration, gave a lot of high tech missile and computer technology away to NK and China. That's just the first charge against the Clintons, which leads us to Bush, who maybe labeled NK Evil, but did nothing to NK for their behavior. We've been making mistakes with that part of the world for a very long time. Trump appears to be doing fine, compared to the last three presidents.