Trump has 3 options for dealing with North Korea. They’re all bad.

By Alex Ward

North Korea has bedeviled past US presidents, too.

North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that can hit most of the US mainland on July 28. It detonated its largest nuclear bomb yet on September 3. And it also twice launched missiles over Japan this year, most recently on September 15 local time.

North Korea continues to expressly defy the wishes of the United States and the international community by carrying out provocative actions. Now it is up to Trump to decide how to respond — and he is left with very bad options to do so.

On August 8, Trump said the US would unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continued to threaten America. But the administration prefers to pursue its strategy of diplomacy and economic pressure — for now.

Still, Trump is the next US leader to struggle with how to handle North Korea after its most recent provocation. Presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama tried different approaches to deal with the Hermit Kingdom, such as diplomatic engagement, labeling it a state sponsor of terror, or simply ignoring it in hopes that the regime would collapse on its own.

None of those approaches worked as the regimes of Kim and his father — and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs more generally — outlasted them all.

“US policy toward North Korea has been unsuccessful for a couple of decades,” Sheena Greitens, a North Korea expert at the University of Missouri, said in an interview. “We’re seeing the consequences of that now.”

With Pyongyang successfully testing a missile capable of hitting the mainland, Trump is tasked with trying to find some way to keep the danger from getting even worse. However, the options he has available to him are broadly the same as the ones his predecessors had: military strikes, diplomacy, or economic sanctions.

The military option would entail a “surgical strike” on North Korea’s nuclear sites to take out the country’s missiles as well as the country’s political leadership, including Kim Jong Un. The problem is that North Korea would be certain to hit back hard, using its own large artillery arsenal to strike at America’s allies, South Korea, and Japan. That would likely kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of people — including US troops stationed in both countries — even before nuclear weapons were dropped.

The diplomatic option would see the US try to come to some sort of agreement with North Korea to either give up its programs or, at a minimum, freeze their development. Over the past few decades, though, North Korea has shown no desire to follow any agreements, consistently breaking accords with the US and its partners and covertly advancing its nuclear weapons and missile efforts.

And the sanctions would be meant to impose so much economic pain on Pyongyang that it would conclude that the costs of continuing the programs are too high. But many items the country wants and needs, like weapons and fuel, are already highly sanctioned by the US. North Korea hasn’t changed its course.

So, the options for Trump are poor and fraught with risk. “There are no silver bullet solutions,” James Miller, the top Pentagon policy official from 2012 to 2014, told me.

In some ways, that means the bigger and more immediate question is whether Trump can avoid taking steps that make the problem worse.

The options for dealing with North Korea all have huge downsides

President Trump Calls Prime Minister Of Ireland From Oval OfficePhoto by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Trump in the Oval Office.

As Greitens told me, there are basically three broad options Trump can choose from: 1) military strikes; 2) diplomacy; or 3) economic sanctions. But here’s the rub: option one is incredibly dangerous, and options two and three have a mixed track record at best.

First, the military option. The last thing Defense Secretary James Mattis wants is a war with North Korea. “A conflict in North Korea,” he told CBS’s John Dickerson on May 28, “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Gen. Vincent Brooks, who commands US troops in South Korea, thinks that tensions are high between the North and South, as the only thing keeping both sides from fighting is “self-restraint.” In other words, there’s nothing really keeping the two countries from warring except a massive provocation or miscalculation.

That’s not only a problem for the Koreas, but also for America. Around 23,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea. Many of them are within reach of North Korea’s artillery. And, should a war break out, many would be killed as they would be considered top targets by the North.

If the US is worried North Korea might make the first move, though, it could launch a preemptive surgical strike on North Korea. It would certainly do damage to the country’s missile and nuclear programs. But North Korea would retaliate, imperiling the safety of US allies South Korea and Japan.

Pyongyang has the world’s largest artillery arsenal at its disposal, with around 8,000 rocket launchers and artillery cannons on its side of the demilitarized zone between the North and South, and it could use that arsenal to strike the major capital of Seoul. It could also use its short-range missiles to strike Tokyo and other large Japanese urban areas, some of them with only about a 10-minute warning.

But a fight between the North and South would be bad enough. Simulations of a large-scale artillery fight produce pretty bleak results. One war game convened by the Atlantic back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone. Others put the estimate even higher. A war game mentioned by the National Interest predicted Seoul could “be hit by over half-a-million shells in under an hour.” Those results don’t bode well for one of Washington’s closest allies, or for …read more

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