How has North Korea responded in the five weeks since President Donald Trump threated Pyongyang with “fire and fury?” A trio of missile launches and a hydrogen bomb test that is the communist nation’s most powerful to date. And what have the U.S. and its allies achieved? A new set of U.N. sanctions that even Trump declared a “small step,” extensive talks and a rhetorical two-step that leaves them where they have been for years. While Washington warns of military options, it says it still wants a peaceful solution.
“We will defend our people and our civilization from all who dare to threaten our way of life,” Trump said at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Friday after Pyongyang conducted its longest-ever test flight of a ballistic missile. “This includes the regime of North Korea, which has once again shown its utter contempt for its neighbors and for the entire world community.”
Diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear standoff has been stalled for years. And there’s little sign that talks involving the U.S., North Korea and other interested countries can be arranged amid the almost weekly barrage of weapons tests and threats, let alone stop the North’s determined nuclear march.
Trump heads to the U.N. General Assembly meeting next week with the same suitcase of bad options as his predecessors. Only now, the threat is heightened. North Korea is closer than ever to its goal of building a military arsenal that can viably target both U.S. troops in Asia and the American homeland.
“We’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road,” H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, told reporters on Friday.
U.S. options range from everything to accepting North Korea as a nuclear power to using military force in a bid to destroy its arsenal and even oust leader Kim Jong Un. Like his predecessors, Trump has opted for choices somewhere in between: economic sanctions and talk of eventual diplomacy or military action, depending on how North Korea responds.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea’s “highly provocative” test of an intermediate-range missile, which hurtled over U.S. ally Japan into the northern Pacific Ocean. But the North has ignored countless international reproaches previously.
At the White House, McMaster called on nations to aggressively enforce recent U.N. sanctions to increase economic pressure.
“For those who have said and have been commenting about the lack of a military option, there is a military option,” he insisted. “Now, it’s not what we would prefer to do.”
Experts have long questioned if the U.S. could indeed attack North Korea, given its ability to cause massive casualties south of the border. Some 25 million people live in the metropolitan area of Seoul, U.S. ally South Korea’s capital, well within range of the North’s extensive artillery. North Korea also has the world’s largest standing army.
Those arguments were buttressed from within Trump’s administration last month when Steven Bannon concurred that America was essentially bluffing about military options, shortly before he was pushed out as the president’s strategic adviser.
Trump’s U.N. envoy called North Korea “reckless.”
“At that point, you know, there’s not a whole lot the Security Council is going to be able to do,” Ambassador Nikki Haley said, claiming global sanctions already have cut off 90 percent of North Korea’s trade and 30 percent of its oil.
Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said other nations will be watching the United States at the U.N. next week to determine Trump’s next steps. She expected a Trump call for maximum pressure on North Korea.
“I don’t think that he’ll stray too much outside of the boundaries of that,” Collins said. “Hopefully there will be coordination with allies on their policy lines before he adds anything to the speech about North Korea.”