The next president has managed to put himself on a collision course with Pyongyang. Can he cut a deal to stop it?
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
I spent a fair amount of the holiday break being asked whether Donald Trump could start a nuclear war with his Twitter account. I couldn’t think of more than two ways that The Donald might get us all killed. Of course, that’s two ways too many, but count your blessings it isn’t more.
But there are plenty of conceivable Trump-triggered events that, while falling well short of a nuclear war, are still awful to contemplate. To wit: President-elect of the United States — PEOTUS, sounds like Pee-Otus — might have already Twitter-baited North Korea into testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead all the way to Washington.
OK, Donald, you tweeted us into this. Now let’s see if you can tweet us out of it.
First things first: Despite what you might have read in the press, Kim Jong Un did not announce that North Korea would test an ICBM in 2017. What Kim did do was give a speech on New Year’s Day in which he devoted a long section to patting himself on the back for all the “marvelous successes, one after another” that he oversaw in 2016, including two nuclear tests and having “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.”
We already knew that. The North Koreans made a really big deal about testing the engine for their future ICBM in April. I wrote a blog post about it. I probably would have written a Foreign Policy column, too, but I had just published one called “America Is in Denial About North Korea’s Nukes.” I thought you had enough Kim Jong Un in your life. So we’ve been waiting for a North Korean ICBM test that can come at any time.
Later in the New Year’s speech — much later — Kim went all tough-guy. He vowed, “We will continue to build up our self-defense capability, the pivot of which is the nuclear forces, and the capability for preemptive strike as long as the United States and its vassal forces keep on nuclear threat and blackmail and as long as they do not stop their war games they stage at our doorstep disguising them as annual events.”
In other words: If the United States doesn’t make nice and suspend military exercises with South Korea we can expect more missile and nuclear tests. That’s actually fairly mundane stuff the North Koreans say all the time. You can read it as leaving the door open a crack for diplomacy, or you can see it as justifying the tests that the North Koreans are planning anyway. But it still doesn’t amount to a new threat.
Of course, it is an obvious inference that North Korea might test an ICBM in 2017. We should probably expect an ICBM test to come sooner or later. But Kim didn’t commit to an ICBM test in 2017. He indicated that one was possible. And he also restated North Korea’s long-standing demands for reducing tensions. You don’t have to think Kim’s offer is an appealing one or that he is sincere. Frankly, I have my doubts on both accounts. But he did make an offer.
That isn’t what got reported of course. “North Korea Will Test Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, Kim Says,” blared the New York Times. The headline was a heck of a lot less careful than the story, by Choe Sang-Hun. Eventually, the editors toned down the headline, but too late. By that time, the damage was done. Kim’s speech wound its way through the news and social media, cut up and condensed into 140-character snippets like a modern-day game of telephone. In the end, his bland speech had been transformed into a “grim promise” to test “a missile to reach U.S.”
Enter The Donald. “It won’t happen!” he tweeted.
In typical Trumpian fashion, he left the details for others to fill in. And the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, America’s finest military planners, soon concluded that the United States should shoot down any North Korean ICBM missile test with “ship-based” missile defenses in the region.
There’s just one problem: They can’t. I tried to explain all this in a big tweet-storm, but the short version is that the interceptors on U.S. Aegis destroyers are designed for much shorter-range missiles. The United States does have an interceptor in development that might have a shot at a North Korea ICBM, but it’s never been tested against a target. Even if we thought now was the time, we’d have to get the North Koreans to tell us in advance about their launch and agree to do it in a way so that the ships could have a shot at it. Which doesn’t seem very likely to me.
But the idea began to spread anyway. Defense Secretary Ash Carter was asked about the idea a couple of times. Carter repeated the same, purportedly reassuring talking points that every defense secretary of every party has repeated for as long as I can remember. The United States has a variety of defenses against North Korea’s missiles. If they were launched against the United States or its allies, we would certainly shoot them down. Asked specifically about ICBM tests, Carter said that was another matter, later elaborating at a Pentagon news briefing that if a missile test wasn’t threatening, the United States “won’t necessarily” try to intercept it, because he wouldn’t want to deplete interceptor inventories and would want to collect intelligence on the missile system. Somehow that turned into this:
Carter says U.S. would shoot down North Korea missiles as Beijing voices concern over ICBM test https://t.co/UbYOSoQ6Va
— The Japan Times (@japantimes) January 9, 2017
And then Charles Krauthammer jumped into the fray, affirming that the United States should shoot down any ICBM test and adding if that wasn’t possible, it was probably the fault of Democrats. Which was news to me, since I recall House Democrats trying to shift funding to ship-based missile-defense systems during the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration replacing Bush’s European missile defense architecture with a shore-based version of the Aegis system. But whatever, Chuck has his shtick.
And God forbid we shoot and miss. You can go ahead and imagine the panicked reactions in Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, and Pyongyang if we took a shot at the ICBM test and whiffed.
The whole policy debate has been an absurd carnival of panic, bellicosity, and partisanship. I can’t help but think that Trump and his childish Twitter tantrums may not be the president I want, but he’s the one we deserve.
As I said, Kim didn’t promise to test an ICBM in 2017. If anything, he left that point ambiguous to see what offer Trump might make him. (The Art of the Deal, right?) But after all the manly-man talk in America about shooting down ICBMs, North Korea dutifully responded in kind, warning, “The ICBM will be launched anytime and anywhere determined by the supreme headquarters of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].” The article ended with a little shot at Trump: “Anyone who wants to deal with the DPRK would be well advised to secure a new way of thinking after having clear understanding of it.”
So, you know, that went really well.
As things stand, 2017 is on course to be an eventful year. North Korea made 2016 a record-setting year for nuclear and missile testing, but there is no reason to think that it can’t break all those records. It certainly has a lot of options to make trouble. North Korea could conduct a space launch, something my colleagues in Monterey, California, think is looking likely based on the cosmetic changes occurring at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Or North Korea could conduct even more missile tests.
And then there is North Korea’s nuclear test site. My colleagues and I built a three-dimensional model of the North Korean nuclear test site and guess what? It turns out North Korea is tunneling like there is no tomorrow. The test site is built for a lot more nuclear tests, tests that might be larger than you think. It isn’t hard to see why former Defense Secretary Bill Perry has recently found himself explaining that, while he once suggested attacking North Korea’s space launcher on the pad, today he would counsel a different course of action: diplomacy.
Here is the bad news. I don’t think a diplomatic agreement is going to result in North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. As I have argued, the North Korean program is too far along and too important to the country’s propaganda to roll back for promises of better relations with the United States. But that doesn’t mean the United States doesn’t have an interest in freezing the program or just slowing it down. North Korea hasn’t tested an ICBM. Its solid-fueled missile program is just getting going, and we aren’t facing a North Korean-staged thermonuclear device — yet. It can get so much worse.
So how about a timeout?
What if the incoming Trump administration offered to reduce in scope some military exercises in 2017 — in exchange for North Korea agreeing not to test long-range missiles of any kind, including space launchers, or conduct nuclear explosions? North Korea has long complained about U.S.-South Korean military exercises — and not entirely without reason. (Ask a Georgian how Russia’s Kavkaz-2008 exercise ended.) As the Clinton administration neared a nuclear deal with North Korea, it suspended the old, annual Team Spirit exercise that so irritated North Korea. The United States continued other exercises, however, and, over time and as the relationship soured again, those exercises have grown larger and more … interesting. Today, it is not unusual for Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises to include the appearance of nuclear-capable bombers, something that was intended to irritate North Korea, and certainly succeeded.
North Korea’s demand that the United States cancel all its exercises is a nonstarter, but Washington could offer further transparency and agree to some limits on their scale. There are lots of good reasons to do this, not least because the bomber appearances are losing their shock value. They have become a poor substitute for a strategy. We might as well get something for taking a break from them.
We don’t have to work out all the details in advance. But the basic framework for a potential compromise is clear: scaling back the exercises in 2017 that Kim complained about in his speech for his agreement to refrain from nuclear and missile testing during the same period. It is a timeout to reduce tensions while Trump and Kim figure each other out.
The proposal doesn’t have to be detailed. The Trump administration can start by endorsing the basic framework, then presenting it to the North Koreans.
In a tweet maybe.
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images