In a move that seems timed to strike fear into the hearts of celebrating Americans, North Korea test-fired a rocket it has officially dubbed its first intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The rogue state, known for being the last Stalinist-style communist government in existence, has pursued nuclear weapons development since the 1990s. In 2006, it tested its first nuclear weapon, resulting in worldwide condemnation. Despite economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure from across the globe, including traditional allies Russia and China, North Korea has steadily advanced its nuclear ambitions.
Alarmingly, development of a working ICBM was the final step needed for North Korea to directly threaten the United States.
Whether North Korea’s recent test was truly an ICBM, or truly successful, remains to be seen. But, even though the controversial “hermit kingdom” has suffered numerous rocket-launch setbacks in recent years, it is undeniable that the country is making steady progress in being able to project its power. If it has been able to miniaturize its nuclear weapons to warhead size and install them on functioning ICBMs, then the U.S. west coast faces a legitimate WMD threat from a dangerously unpredictable dictator.
While the brutal regime in Pyongyang could never hope to win an actual war against the United States and its allies, its ability to destroy an entire American city could be used as insurance against any strike. Worryingly, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un might use his new ICBMs to perpetrate nuclear blackmail against the West, seeking ample economic aid and a loosening of economic and diplomatic sanctions in exchange for not using its WMDs. Would such appeasement lock in a lasting peace, or would it continue to embolden Kim Jong Un’s regime?
Americans are unlikely to take the news of North Korea’s alleged ICBM development well: The brutal and repressive communist regime has been a thorn in the side of every President since Bill Clinton, and no President has been able to rein in the Kims. Deals made by Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all been broken with impunity by North Korea, and rounds of economic sanctions have done nothing to slow Pyongyang’s drive to achieve a functional nuclear deterrent. Now, rookie politico Donald Trump has to match wits with Kim Jong Un.
True to form, Trump used tough talk against North Korea as part of his 2016 presidential campaign. On January 2, after winning the election, but prior to his inauguration, Trump declared that North Korea would never test an ICBM. “It won’t happen!” the real estate mogul tweeted. Now Trump is in the hot seat to respond, and both Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been displeased with the commander-in-chief’s Twitter denunciations of North Korea thus far.
Instead of responding with fire and brimstone, the President asked if Kim Jong Un had anything better to do with his time than launch missiles, and said that Japan and South Korea wouldn’t tolerate the provocations much longer. Trump also hoped that China would respond strongly to the latest test. From the master of machismo, Trump’s rather muted response to a possible North Korean ICBM seems worryingly weak.
China and Russia are unlikely to take the lead in reining in North Korea, for they are not the ones who face Kim Jong Un’s unhinged wrath. Although China is likely tired of subsidizing North Korea’s failing economy, it undoubtedly enjoys that the regime in Pyongyang can keep its American rivals busy. Russia, as well, probably enjoys North Korea’s continual status as a geopolitical monkey wrench. Although nobody wants to admit befriending the repressive state, North Korea serves as a valuable buffer zone between the West and both China and Russia, distracting attention.
As long as North Korea is up to its shenanigans, both Russia and China can pursue their own controversial goals with less international scrutiny. Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem like such a bad guy when Kim Jong Un is busy threatening the U.S. and throwing his own citizens into concentration camps.
The United States is responsible for solving the North Korea puzzle and cannot abdicate its responsibility to China, as many observers clearly hope. While Donald Trump and his advisers may not have the answers, it is unacceptable that the President chooses to play golf instead of returning to the White House and crafting a formal response to the incendiary test. If North Korea has indeed developed a working ICBM, the countdown to any physical conflict between Pyongyang and Washington has been shortened from years to months. If we were not doing so already, we must be keeping an eagle eye on North Korea to spot any signs of rocket launch preparations.
In addition to ramping up missile defense technology in South Korea, Japan, and along the U.S. west coast, the U.S. should consider crafting a deal with Russia and China to trade economic concessions for their help in shooting down any future North Korean rocket launches. If anyone can successfully thwart an ICBM launch from North Korea, it is Russia and China. Those two nations share a border with North Korea and have the technological know-how to stop an ICBM immediate upon launch. They may even receive advance warning of an impending launch, allowing them to alert the West and shoot down the ICBM as soon as it lifts off.
Unless the U.S. is willing to send in “boots on the ground” to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear sites, a deal with China and Russia should be pursued as insurance against the loss of an American city.