Trump’s strategy against North Korea has more holes than a sieve

The "nuanced" approach needed to turn the heat down with Pyongyang is the very thing Trump lacks.

North Korea wasted little time in calling Trump on his bluff, releasing plans to test missiles around Guam within two hours of his "fire and fury" threat CREDIT: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
North Korea wasted little time in calling Trump on his bluff, releasing plans to test missiles around Guam within two hours of his "fire and fury" threat CREDIT: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

The past week has seen the United States go from slapping sanctions onto North Korea to flat-out threatening to unleash hell in response to Pyongyang’s refusal to stop testing ballistic missiles.

The new strategy got a lot of attention, but how effective is it?

With his increasingly bombastic rhetoric Trump is solely responsible for upending his administration’s attempts at diplomacy. Here’s a summary from this past week:

  • Tuesday – Trump: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
  • Wednesday – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours. Americans should sleep well at night.”
  • Thursday – Trump: “Things will happen to them [North Koreans] like they never thought possible.”
  • Friday – Trump (in a morning tweet): Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!
  • Saturday – Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped in, making “a plea for cool-headedness,” according to the Washington Post.

But with no ambassador in place in South Korea to establish a channel of communication and no assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the State Department or an assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department, there’s no one left to rein in Trump’s messaging.


So with the carrot of diplomacy an increasingly unlikely option, the U.S. is left the stick. Specifically, two sticks: sanctions and bombs.

Effective sanctions (See: Iran) take massive international cooperation, and the sanctions, enacted by both the United States and the U.N. Security Council, rely on compliance from friends and frenemies alike.

But even U.S. partners in the Gulf Arab world aren’t on board. Kuwait and Qatar both use North Korean labor, and, according to the Associated Press, do not plan on stopping that any time soon. According to U.N. data, funds essentially garnished from the wages of these overseas workers by the North Korean government — over $1 billion a year — help keep it afloat.

In addition to supporting the North Korean economy by hiring laborers, Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, another U.S. ally in the region, purchase weapons from North Korea. The UAE for instance bought $100 million worth of weapons from North Korea to help Saudi efforts in Yemen.

China, the top buyer of North Korean exports, has said it will comply with the terms of the sanctions, but experts have said the odds of actual compliance are slim to none.


Which brings us to the military option: Most of Asia does not share the opinion of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that it’s OK for an attack to be contained somewhere out there in the Pacific Ocean – assuming North Korea is serious about attacking the U.S. territory of Guam.

This might push the entire region into a fresh arms race.

Japan has expressed willingness to shoot down North Korean missiles. This, reported Time magazine, means that Japan “is likely to acquire a ground-based version of the Aegis missile defence system. It is also mulling the acquisition of munitions that would allow it to strike North Korea missile sites.”

South Korea, notes the article, has “ordered a speedy deployment of the controversial U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense system.” China, however, is a different story.

As Reuters reports, the Chinese government has not issued any official response to the heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. But the state-run media, such as the Global Times newspaper, are filling the void: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”

Harry Krejsa, Bacevich Fellow and Asia security expert at the Center for a New American Security, told ThinkProgress that China is likely to do as much as possible “without actually being helpful.”


“There’s almost nothing that can convince China that it is in its interest to harm and potentially destabilize the North Korean state,” he said.

Krejsa thinks it’s unlikely that anyone will make the decision to go to war “because the consequences will be so grave and so terrible for everyone involved.” However, “the bigger threat,” he said, “is accidentally stumbling into war,” which is possible, given “the incoherent signally from the [Trump] administration.”

The current sanctions aren’t working, but, Krejsa said the U.S. might pursue secondary sanctions, targeting countries that aren’t complying, such as China and Kuwait.

“And that’s going to be diplomatically painful, but that’s one the few levers we have left,” Krejsa said, noting that the U.S. still needs these countries as allies.

“It’s going to be a very difficult threading of the needle. It’s going to take very sophisticated, nuanced diplomatic engagement, at a time when we have no senior officials for the region at the State Department and the Pentagon,” said Krejsa.

Can the Trump administration impose secondary sanctions in time to stop what appears to be a fast progress in the North Korean nuclear weapons program?

“That is very much the bad news,” said Krejsa. There’s good news, though: The U.S. learned a lot from its experience during the Cold War.

“One of the fundamental lessons of that period was that we need to be clear and detailed about what will happen if you do X — so if you do X, we will do Y. And at the same time, we need to be clear on what you can do to avoid those consequences.,” said Krejsa.

“And that’s what’s missing in this situation.”