The Trump administration made a clear break Thursday with diplomatic efforts to talk North Korea out of a nuclear confrontation, bringing the United States and its Asian allies closer to a military response than at any point in more than a decade.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that 20 years of trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program had failed and that he was visiting Asia “to exchange views on a new approach.”
Soon after Tillerson’s remarks, in a sign of mounting tensions, the North Korean Embassy held an extraordinary news conference in Beijing to blame the potential for nuclear war on the United States while vowing that its homegrown nuclear testing program will continue in self-defense.
North Korea has amassed a sizable nuclear stockpile and appears at the brink of being able to strike the U.S. mainland and American allies in Asia. The rising threat from the isolated military dictatorship has prompted the Trump administration to begin assessing its options for how to respond and serves as an early test for how the president will confront an increasingly volatile international situation.
One potential immediate response would be to strengthen existing South Korean missile capabilities or to provide Japan with new offensive missile ability. Japan’s defense chief told parliament this month that he would not rule out “first strike” capability, which would be a major departure from Japan’s postwar pacifist traditions.
The United States could also field the same THAAD missile defense system in Japan that it is now installing in South Korea or take the potentially provocative stop of reinstalling American nuclear weapons at U.S. bases in South Korea. The North Korean threat could also rekindle the largely dormant idea of a domestic U.S. missile defense system.
North Korea has boasted of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and experts on Asia security generally agree that such a capability is within Pyongyang’s reach. Preventing it outright would probably require a military strike on North Korean facilities, something the United States has considered an option of last resort because it would almost certainly result in an attack on South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there, perhaps with chemical or biological weapons.
That deal collapsed in 2002, and North Korea achieved its first atomic test in 2006. The George W. Bush administration’s efforts at a new deal collapsed, and Pyongyang has managed to build up its stockpile of nuclear material as well as refine its missiles despite what on paper look like crushing international sanctions.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile efforts have intensified under dictator Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011, and appear to have escalated further since Donald Trump’s election.
Tillerson’s remarks reflected growing agitation in Washington that a tougher stance on North Korea is required.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month that the United States has three choices: what he called “proactive regime change,” to topple Kim; sanctions and other coercive measures; or military cooperation with Japan and South Korea that could include a preemptive strike on missile facilities. “Otherwise, we’re staring down the barrel of an ICBM,” Corker said.
“That encouragement has been met with further development of nuclear capabilities, more missile launches,” including this month and last, Tillerson said. “In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required.”