NEW YORK — When President-elect Donald Trump said on Twitter in early January that a North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States “won’t happen!” there were two things that he still did not fully appreciate: how close Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader, was to reaching that goal, and how limited any president’s options were to stop him.
The ensuing seven months have been a brutal education for Trump. With North Korea’s Tuesday launch, the country has new reach. Experts believe it has crossed the threshold — if just barely — with a missile that appears capable of striking Alaska.
A more definitive demonstration that North Korea can reach the US mainland cannot be far away, even if it may be a few years before Kim can fit a nuclear warhead onto his increasingly powerful missiles. But for Trump and his national security team, Tuesday’s technical milestone simply underscores tomorrow’s strategic dilemma.
A North Korean ability to reach the United States, as former defense secretary William Perry noted recently, “changes every calculus.” The fear is not that Kim would launch a preemptive attack on the West Coast; that would be suicidal, and if the 33-year-old leader has demonstrated anything in his five years in office, he is all about survival. But if Kim has the potential ability to strike back, it would shape every decision Trump and his successors will make about defending US allies in the region.
For years, the North has been able to reach South Korea and Japan with ease, and US intelligence officials believe those medium-range missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
But this latest test suggests the United States may already be in range as well, and that, as one former top US intelligence official noted recently, would color every military decision and put enormous pressure on US missile defenses that few trust to work.
Trump still has some time. What the North Koreans accomplished while Americans focused on Independence Day celebrations was a breakthrough but not a vivid demonstration of their nuclear reach.
Their missile traveled about 580 miles, by itself no great achievement. But it got there by taking a 1,700-mile trip into space and reentering the atmosphere, a flight that lasted 37 minutes by the calculation of the US Pacific Command (and a few minutes longer according to the North Koreans).
Flatten that out and you have a missile that could reach Alaska, but not Los Angeles. That bolsters the assessment of the director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James D. Syring, who told a congressional hearing last month that the United States “must assume that North Korea can reach us with a ballistic missile.”
Perhaps that is why Trump has not issued any “red lines” that the North Koreans cannot step over.
He has not even repeated the policy that President George W. Bush laid out in October 2006 after the North’s first nuclear test: that he would hold the country “fully accountable” if it shared its nuclear technology with any other nation or terrorist group. Trump’s advisers say they see little merit in drawing lines that could limit options, and they would rather keep the North guessing.
So what are Trump’s options, and what are their downsides?
There is classic containment: limiting an adversary’s ability to expand its influence, as the United States did against a much more powerful foe, the Soviet Union. But that does not solve the problem; it is just a way of living with it.
He could step up sanctions, bolster the US naval presence off the Korean Peninsula — “we’re sending an armada” he boasted in April — and accelerate the secret US cyber program to sabotage missile launches. But if that combination of intimidation and technical wizardry had been a success, Kim would not have conducted the test Tuesday, knowing that it would only lead to more sanctions, more military pressure, and more covert activity — and perhaps persuade China that it has no choice but to intervene more decisively.
So far, Trump’s early enthusiasm that he had cajoled China’s president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the North has resulted in predictable disappointment. Recently, he told Xi that the United States was prepared to go it alone in confronting North Korea, but the Chinese may consider that an empty threat.
He could also take another step, and threaten preemptive military strikes if the United States detects an imminent launch of a intercontinental ballistic missile — maybe one intended to demonstrate the potential reach to the West Coast. Perry argued for that step in 2006, in an op-ed in The Washington Post that he wrote with a future defense secretary, Ash Carter. “If North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy” the missile on the pad, the two men wrote.
But Perry noted recently that “even if you think it was a good idea at the time,” and he now seems to have his doubts, “it’s not a good idea today.”
The reason is simple: In the intervening 11 years, the North has built too many missiles, of too many varieties, to make the benefits of a strike like that worth the risk. It has test-flown a new generation of solid-fuel missiles, which can be easily hidden in mountain caves and rolled out for quick launch. And the North Koreans still possess their ultimate weapon of retaliation: artillery along the northern edge of the Demilitarized Zone that can take out the South’s capital, Seoul, a city of approximately 10 million people and one of the most vibrant economic hubs of Asia.
In short, that is a risk the North Koreans are betting even Trump, for all his threats, would not take. “A conflict in North Korea,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in May, “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
Which leads to the next option, the one that South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, talked about in Washington on Friday when he visited Trump: negotiation. It would start with a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in return for a US agreement to limit or suspend military exercises with South Korea. Xi has long urged that approach, and it won an endorsement on Tuesday from President Vladimir Putin of Russia after he met with the Chinese leader.
As Kim looks around the world, he sees cases like that of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi of Libya — an authoritarian who gave up his nascent nuclear program, only to be deposed, with US help, as soon as his people turned against him. That is what Kim believes his nuclear program will prevent — a US effort to topple him.
He may be right.