OPINION | Hayden: Trump bluster puts us in ‘tight box’ on North Korea


“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.”  

OK.  I’ll admit it. I didn’t see that quote from the president coming on Tuesday. 

It looks like the president’s national security team didn’t either. Press reporting suggests that they were unaware that the president was going to say anything, and it’s hard to imagine Secretary Tillerson or Generals Kelly, Mattis or McMaster approving that talking point. It’s never a good thing for the president of the United States to sound like “Baghdad Bob.”

{mosads}The tonal difference between the president and the rest of his government also suggests some long-term structural and process issues within the administration. 

And, for the record, the president’s statement actually drew a redline that Kim Jong Un crossed an hour or two later by threatening the U.S. territory of Guam. So much for that concept.

All that said, the president’s statement appears to be part of a broader, coherent but still dangerous strategy to reset the nuclear equation on the Korean Peninsula. Simply put, within our previous definition of acceptable risk, it was inevitable that North Korea would develop the ability to reach North America with a nuclear weapon aboard an indigenously produced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The Obama administration’s approach of “strategic patience” seemed to accept that inevitability and concentrated on slowing the North Korean program, while also building a structure of defense and deterrence to deal with the emerging reality. 

Not so for the Trump administration, and the key to its approach is leveraging the Chinese to do more to forestall or prevent “the inevitable.” Vigorous Chinese action is the best hope for negotiations that could freeze the North Korean program. (Rollback would be much more problematic, elimination an impossibility.) 

The hard (and dangerous) part is getting the Chinese to do more. Beijing isn’t a fan of a nuclear North Korea, but it has preferred to live with today’s status quo rather than risk the destabilization of the peninsula that increased pressure might bring: chaos, refugee flows, even a unified and antagonistic Korean Peninsula.

In the simplest terms, North Korea may be a bad toothache, but China would rather live with the pain than risk a root canal. The Trump administration’s approach is simply to make the tooth hurt more, to convince the Chinese that the status quo is really something they cannot live with.  

We are the ones stirring the pot right now in northeast Asia. The North Korean program has been on its predictable arc. What’s new is our response: rhetorically tougher language, even beyond what the president said Tuesday; naval deployments in the waters off the peninsula; nuclear-capable B-1s flying from Guam in full view of North Korean radars and seriously threatening, punishing secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and industries. 

And the Chinese have moved a bit, voting for a tough sanctions package against North Korea in the U.N. Security Council over the weekend.  

But this is a delicate dance. The Chinese reward for supporting sanctions appears to have been what, in their view, is alarmist and destabilizing rhetoric from our president, just 72 hours later. With some merit, the Chinese fear that such language makes a dangerous incident in their backyard more, rather than less, likely.  

It is not at all clear that the Chinese have decisive leverage in Pyongyang on the nuclear question. After all, from the North Korean point of view, this is about regime survival. Kim Jong Un has yet to visit China (in fact, he apparently has not left North Korea since assuming power), and he dared to kill his older half-brother, who had been living under Chinese protection, and his uncle, who had long been viewed as China’s link to the North Korean leadership. 

So, what do we do if the Chinese fail to try, or try and fail, and the North Korean program continues unabated?  

We have built a pretty tight rhetorical box for ourselves and, to date, after more than six months of American huffing and puffing, the only thing that has changed is that North Korea has more missiles and more weapons.  

We are stirring the pot. It is not an illogical strategy. I think I see the plan. One only hopes that we have thought through what my army and Marine friends would call the branches and sequels of that plan. After all, we all know that the enemy gets a “vote.”

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

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

Tags China Kim Jong-un Military of North Korea North Korea North Korean nuclear test North Korea–United States relations Nuclear program of North Korea Underground nuclear weapons testing
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