Hours after North Korea tested its third intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) predictably issued a unanimous and swift condemnation.
US President Donald Trump, who has prided himself on his unpredictable approach to solving the North Korean crisis, tweeted: “Just spoke to President XI JINPING of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea. Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!”
Trump’s initial public response differed from past rhetoric, which has included insulting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, including during an address before the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September, when he famously called him “Little Rocket Man.”
On Thursday, however, a day after Trump’s call with Xi, the US president appeared frustrated with Beijing’s inability to use its influence to help moderate Pyongyang’s behavior, returning to his well-known and all-too-predictable pattern of venting on Twitter.
Trump tweeted: “The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man. Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions. Russia and China condemned the launch.”
Amid these developments, US foreign policy analysts sought to determine whether North Korea’s latest ICBM test had become a game-changer given its ability to threaten the continental US.
The Associated Press reported on Friday that South Korea’s Defense Ministry had issued a report on Wednesday’s ICBM test, saying it “is potentially capable of striking targets as far as 13,000 km (8,100 miles), which would put Washington within reach… It’s also considerably larger than North Korea’s previous ICBM, the Hwasong-14, and designed to deliver larger warheads … That would seem to confirm the North’s boast after the launch that the Hwasong-15 can carry ‘super-large heavy nuclear warheads’.”
Trump’s apparent strategy is to ratchet up his rhetoric against Pyongyang and particularly its leader, which every time draws immediate condemnation from the president’s domestic political opponents and outrage from the mainstream media, which consider his tweets and rhetoric to be reckless and dangerous. Trump’s strategy is not working. Neither his tweets nor his UNGA address have helped deter Kim from carrying out repeated ICBM tests. Instead, Trump has set up a new and predictable framework of events that are likely to be repeated as Pyongyang pushes ahead with its strategic objective to expand its ICBM program while acquiring new capabilities.
Despite the strategic objective to break the cycle of decades of failed US diplomatic engagement with North Korea, Pyongyang appears to have few — if any — incentives to alter its behavior, especially given its demonstrated ability to acquire new military capabilities.
In this context, Trump — through his tweets — has only marginally managed to change the well-established diplomatic framework between Washington and Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the diplomatic process continues to center on the immediate call for UNSC resolutions condemning North Korea every time it tests its nuclear and missile programs.
What is positive is the US State Department’s approach of imposing new sanctions against Pyongyang following UNSC resolutions as part of a strategic objective to close financial loopholes for the regime to fund its illicit nuclear program. This is conveniently ignored by much of the US media, as its persistent focus is on the department’s reported low morale amid Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s objective to restructure it.
Despite persistent US media speculation about the “immediate” replacement of Tillerson, coupled with the recent decision by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to plead guilty for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about his conversation with the Russian ambassador, it would be a mistake for North Korea to underestimate the Trump administration because of its domestic challenges.
The US maintains strategic assets in South Korea, Japan and Guam, and has the most superior fighting force the world has ever seen, of which North Korea is keenly aware. As such, Pyongyang is unlikely to alter its strategic objectives and predictable pattern of behavior by treating the Trump administration any different than its predecessors.