Foreign Policy

‘Can you hear me now?’ Trump team voices credible threat of force

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The United States has fundamentally changed its strategy toward North Korea and its growing nuclear threat. Why? Why switch to a policy that carries such profound risks?

The short answer is that the Trump administration fears that waiting is even riskier. Previous administrations have tried to wait, relying on mid-sized deals sweetened with small bribes. Those won’t work anymore. They probably never did since the Kim family regime always cheated. Now, the Trump administration has made a basic reassessment. Their calculation: Time is on North Korea’s side, not ours. Temporizing only magnifies the dangers.

That is why the Korean Crisis has reemerged. In the short-term, the Trump administration decided to force the issue. In the long-term, it was North Korea’s steady progress on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that brought it on.

A New Administration, a New Policy

The new policy was announced on March 17, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said simply, “Let me be very clear, the policy of strategic patience has ended…All options are on the table.” Blunt and clear. The Trump administration would not continue the policies that had failed Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama and would, within a few years, bring the United States’ biggest cities within reach of North Korean nuclear missiles.

This week, Vice President Pence reiterated the new policy during his visit to South Korea: “If China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will.” He looked as somber and resolute as his statement. President Trump has made similar comments and made them repeatedly. This is policy, not personal whim.

Equally important, President Trump has started to restore America’s reputation for resolve, backed by credible military threats. This reputation was in tatters after eight years of President Obama’s hesitation, hollow threats and military decay.

Trump is determined to reverse that trend and to do so without sinking into the quicksand of a major land war. To develop this strategy — not only in Asia but in Europe and the Middle East — he is relying on two highly-respected and deeply-experienced general officers, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster.

At State, Tillerson is learning quickly and becoming an increasingly important player. The intel team, led by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is equally serious. After a very rocky start with Mike Flynn and no confirmed leaders at State, CIA, or National Intelligence, the president has finally assembled a strong, reliable team.

After they executed a quick, devastating, and limited strike in Syria and dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan, both allies and adversaries are taking notice.

Echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

The new policy on North Korea is obviously dangerous. The New York Times headlined it as a slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a crisis of conventional weapons too, since North Korea has tens of thousands of short-range rockets, entrenched in hillsides, within easy reach of South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

The analogy to the Cuban Missile Crisis highlights the grave dangers, but there are three crucial differences:

First, in October 1962, the U.S. was dealing with a rational rival. Now, we’re not so sure. Second, in 1962, we dealt with the Soviet Union, which had complete control over its nuclear weapons. Now, we are dealing with North Korea and its own arsenal. China has tremendous leverage, but Beijing ultimately has to get Pyongyang to act. Moscow didn’t have that problem with Havana. Third, the USSR’s nuclear arsenal could hit the United States. North Korea’s cannot; at least not yet.

The Challenge — and Risks — of Coercive Diplomacy

Given the dangers and complexities, why not kick the can down the road again? The answer depends entirely on whether you think time is on your side or your adversary’s.

The problem here is that North Korea is making steady progress on two deadly fronts. It is getting better at building nuclear bombs. It is trying hard to make them smaller, so they can fit on a missile, and it is trying to build a hydrogen bomb.

Second, it is making steady progress building medium-range missiles and is seeking to build an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The combination of small nukes and long-range missiles would put the U.S. within range of nuclear attack by a hyper-dangerous regime with a leader that does not appear to be calm, steady, or rational. All U.S. presidents have called that completely unacceptable.

Kim Jong-un probably won’t stop for small sweeteners. Even if he said he would, his regime’s dismal record of keeping promises would require intrusive inspections. They will resist that mightily, and, unless they cave, that will kill the deal. The days of John Kerry and Barack Obama accepting Iranian self-reporting are dead.

If carrots won’t work and delay is too dangerous, the alternative is to reach for a big stick. That’s what the Trump administration has chosen, hoping they will not have to use force if the threat is credible enough. But if your adversary sees you flinch, you’ll either have to swing the stick or back down.

That’s where we are now. The threat is directed at Pyongyang via Beijing, which dreads a war on the peninsula. The hard part is to resolve the issue with threats and not the actual use of force, which could lead to vast casualties.

In using threats, Trump has a huge advantage over Obama. Trump’s threats to use force are credible. For the first time in years, the Chinese and North Koreans — and America’s friends in the region — have to take that seriously.


Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Barack Obama China Cuban Missile Crisis Dan Coats Foreign policy of Donald Trump International relations John Kerry North Korea Nuclear warfare South Korea South Korea Ballistic Missile Range Guidelines

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