Is the U.S. Considering a Military Response to North Korea?
In a passing-of-the-torch meeting weeks after the election, President Barack Obama warned then-President-elect Donald Trump of the gravest threat facing America today: North Korea. Not a belligerent China. Not an adventurous Russia. Not terrorism. But North Korea, a tiny, starved nation led by a portly 33-year-old who launches ballistic missiles every now and then.
A few months after Obama and Trump met, the North Korean threat remains as stark as ever: Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, claims his country will soon have the capacity to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon; on Monday, North Korea tested four ballistic missiles simultaneously; and China, North Korea’s longtime security blanket, is wavering in its support. As North Korea continues to pursue nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, a dark cloud is slowly expanding over the Korean Peninsula, and the looming threat of potential conflict grows with each passing day.
For the past year or so, North Korea has been flaunting its military capabilities for all the world to see. It tested a nuclear missile last January, and again in September. It has unleashed a flurry of medium and intermediate-range missile over the past few months. And on Monday, the North sent four missiles east toward Japan; they fell into the Sea of Japan, three of them dropping within the boundaries of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called Monday’s test a “new stage of threat.” According to Abe, he spoke with Trump for 25 minutes to discuss a response to the threat. Last week, the North warned a test was on the horizon: “New strategic weapons of our own style will soar into the sky,” read a piece in the North’s state-run newspaper. Monday’s missile launch was a response to the annual joint-exercise between U.S. and South Korean military forces, a show of force that often draws an aggressive response from the North.
On Wednesday, Nikki Haley, the U.S ambassador to the U.N., said Kim Jong-un is “not a rational person.” Speaking after an emergency U.N. meeting on North Korea, Haley hinted the U.S. might be considering a military response to the North’s latest missives. “All the options are on the table,” she said. Sanctions imposed by the international community, while crippling for North Korea’s economy, have not had much success in reigning in its nuclear program.
The U.S. has already responded more forcefully to the North’s threat, deploying its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system to South Korea months ahead of schedule. Mounted on the back of a truck, Thaad detects incoming missiles and intercepts them mid-air. While the move might placate South Korea’s and Japan’s fears, it has heightened tensions with China, who sees Thaad as a check on its own missile launches.
China, for decades, has been the linchpin to North Korea’s survival. Beijing’s support for Pyongyang could be wavering, however, as it recently announced a year-long freeze on imports of North Korean coal. But while China traditionally responds to North Korean missile launches with a gentle “don’t do that again,” it has yet to show the appetite for anything stronger. On Wednesday, China issued its sternest warning to date, advising the North to cease its missile and nuclear launches in order to “defuse a looming crisis.”
In exchange, however, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested the U.S. and South Korea could end their joint-exercises. Both sides have balked at that suggestion, citing past failures in trying to engage North Korea diplomatically. What happens next is anyone’s guess–will China retaliate for the Thaad deployment? Will South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. preemptively strike North Korea’s nuclear facilities? What Obama told Trump in that private meeting in January may be slowly shifting from prophesy to a concrete global reality.