President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis have all weighed in over the last twenty-four hours on the growing threat posed by North Korea. While Tillerson sought to calm Americans’ collective nerves by playing down the nuclear threat level and assuring us that “Americans should sleep well at night,” statements by Trump and Mattis provide little in the way of reassurance.
After North Korea reportedly launched a second ICBM missile test in late July – on top of two nuclear bomb tests in 2016 – the President said on Tuesday that “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.”
A senior Administration official told Reuters that Trump’s remark was “unplanned and spontaneous.” Trump carried on, however, flexing American muscle with a tweet early Wednesday:
“My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
Mattis then amplified the President’s warning:
“The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
Meanwhile, reports circulate that North Korea has now produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles. If this is true, the threat level posed by the DPRK and its totalitarian dictator Kim Jong Un has increased enough to cause legitimate international concern.
The challenge facing President Trump continues to be the same as that faced by previous presidents over the last sixty-five years, but are now magnified substantially by the DPRK’s growing nuclear program. A U.S strike against North Korea would likely result in a retaliatory strike against American ally South Korea, where thousands of American troops have been stationed since the end of the Korean War.
In this century, Presidents Bush and Obama tried various forms of negotiations and sanctions but failed to halt the expansion of NK’s nuclear program. The regime’s closest ally, China, has been consistently fingered as a culprit for failing to exercise sufficient influence over Kim Jong Un. Multiple statements by Trump imploring China to intervene have evidently gone unheeded.
Whether public warnings make the situation better or worse remains to be seen. However, this much is clear: absent an unexpected drawdown by North Korea, few if any options short of direct military action remain available to the Commander-in-Chief.