Trump Has Four Main Options for Stopping North Korean Missiles

  • Kim Jong Un says North Korea close to test-firing missile
  • Neither sanctions nor talks worked on North Korea nuclear arms

North Korea's Nukes Keep Getting Stronger

Kim Jong Un became the first head of state to grab President-elect Donald Trump’s attention in 2017, after the North Korean leader said he was close to test-firing a missile capable of hitting the continental U.S.

“It won’t happen!” Trump retorted on Monday on Twitter, a platform he frequently uses to weigh in on global and domestic affairs.

Still, Trump gave no specifics on how he’d actually do that. Presidents from Bill Clinton to George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama have failed to stop North Korea moving closer to gaining the capability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. That leaves the incoming president facing what is potentially the biggest challenge yet from the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.

Read more: Why North Korea hangs on to its nuclear program

“Trump has yet to look deeply into the North Korean conundrum, and when he does he’ll realize there are only two choices: hit them or talk to them,” said Park Hwee-rhak, head of the Graduate School of Politics and Leadership at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “No matter what you do, Kim will never give up his nuclear missile development. Thinking otherwise is belying reality.”

Here are four options that Trump may consider to make good on his statement.

Military Strike

In 1994, the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier for a potential strike on North Korea’s nuclear compound, according to a memoir published in 2000 by former South Korean President Kim Young-sam. The crisis ended after talks between ex-President Jimmy Carter and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

The costs of a strike would be higher now. North Korea’s arsenal has grown with five nuclear tests since 2006. A surgical attack risks provoking a full-fledged war that could kill millions of people on the peninsula -- including in South Korea, a key American ally.

Still, the idea of striking North Korea first has gained traction in South Korea in recent years. The nation is spending billions of dollars to buy weapons, including F-35 fighters, that would allow its military to conduct a first strike should Kim’s regime show signs of an imminent nuclear launch.

Talks

The last six-nation nuclear talks with North Korea -- a process that included the U.S. -- were held in 2008, and have been stalled since. The current U.S. administration insists Kim agree to denuclearization as a condition for talks to even be held. But Pyongyang has enshrined its nuclear arms in the constitution, and Kim has said the program isn’t up for negotiation.

Trump, a real estate billionaire who authored “The Art of the Deal,” said during his campaign he could negotiate directly with Kim over a hamburger to end his nuclear ambitions. But he’s also likened Kim to a “maniac” and said he would get China to “make that guy disappear in one form or another.”

“Trump touts himself as the master of deals,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “He’ll try to talk first, and when he does he should make sure North Korea understands the military consequences of violating an agreement.”

Missile Defense

President Park Geun-hye gave the U.S. permission to deploy a high-altitude missile defense system known as Thaad on her country’s soil after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January last year. Once installed, Thaad would join a network of American missile defense systems across the Pacific that aim to stop North Korean missiles reaching the continental U.S.

The Pentagon has said previously it plans to next test its ground-based system to destroy missiles aimed at the U.S. in the first quarter of this year. A spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency said in September it has “demonstrated partial capability” against “small numbers of simple ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea and Iran.”

That same month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an audience in Washington that policy makers must assume that North Korea is able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile.

The U.S. has a “layered” missile defense system to deter North Korea, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters on Tuesday. He declined to say if the U.S. would shoot down a North Korean missile, and would not discuss if its West Coast system would be effective against an intercontinental ballistic missile.

China

Trump may lean more on China, which provides most of North Korea’s energy and food, to push Kim to abandon his nuclear program and missile tests. The president-elect said in another tweet this week that China “won’t help with North Korea” even though it “has been taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the U.S.”

But so far, Beijing’s denouncements of North Korea’s nuclear program have had little impact. Kim’s comment on the inter-continental ballistic missile came after China agreed in November to United Nations sanctions that included cutting North Korea’s coal exports, one of the few sources of hard currency for his regime.

— With assistance by Nafeesa Syeed

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