New Trump Policy Shift on N. Korea: From Patience to Pressure

Expected nuclear test not carried out

North Korean ballistic missiles

North Korean ballistic missiles displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang / Getty Images

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North Korea's test of a nuclear warhead did not take place last weekend amid mounting diplomatic and military pressure from the United States and possibly China.

The stepped-up pressure is part of a policy recently adopted by the White House that seeks ways to force North Korea into giving up its nuclear program and long-range missiles without triggering another Korean war.

"The president has asked the National Security Council to integrate the efforts of the Department of Defense, State, our intelligence agencies, so we can provide options and have them ready for [the president] if this pattern of destabilizing behavior continues and if the North Korea regime refuses to denuclearize, which is the accepted objective of both the United States and Chinese leadership as well our allies in the region," White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Sunday.

Fears of the nuclear test were highlighted in northeast China on Friday. The Environmental Protection Bureau for Dalian, a Chinese port city located across the Yellow Sea from North Korea, issued an internal government bulletin warning employees of a coming nuclear test by Pyongyang.

"Addressing the impact and danger of a sudden North Korean nuclear or chemical emergency may [impact] China's environmental safety and public health, and in accordance with instructions from senior departments and Liaoning Province North Korean Nuclear Environment Group Emergency Response Contingency Plan, starting today we are entering a specially designated state of emergency," an English translation of the notice states.

The notice followed some state-run media reports in China last week opposing any further North Korean nuclear tests over concerns seismic activity and radioactive fallout from the underground blasts would spread into China.

In other recent North Korea developments:

  • Vice President Mike Pence said during a visit to South Korea that the past American policy of strategic patience has ended. "We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons," he said, adding, "its continual use of and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable."
  • North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol told the BBC that missile tests would continue weekly and warned that a nuclear war could break out on the peninsula.
  • A military parade in Pyongyang Saturday revealed North Korea's new submarine-launched ballistic missile, known as the KN-11, for the first time.
  • Trump administration officials declined to comment on reports that the failed North Korean missile test was the result of U.S. cyber-sabotage. News reports have said U.S. intelligence has infiltrated North Korea's supply chain and clandestinely introduced doctored parts and equipment designed to cause missile launch failures.

The new Trump administration policy on North Korea involves series of escalating steps aimed at increasing pressure on the erratic Kim Jong Un regime. The measures include high-profile strategic messaging—such as the recent dispatch of an aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson to waters near the Korean peninsula—and increased regional military exercises.

Further steps could include imposing new economic sanctions on the already heavily sanctioned North and on Chinese companies involved in supplying goods and technology to North Korea's arms programs. Additional action could include financial sanctions aimed at choking off North Korea's use of front companies and international financial institutions for arms procurement.

"The president is not going to declare specific policy actions, but we have done a very thorough review and are going to be increasing pressure on the North," a senior administration official told the Washington Free Beacon.

Last week, the senior administration official dismissed an NBC News report asserting that among the options being considered were the assassination of Kim and the reintroduction of nuclear arms to South Korea. "We're not doing that," the official said of the report.

Trump's latest warning to North Korea was issued Monday. Asked what his message for the regime was after the failed missile launch, the president responded with two words: "Gotta behave."

To gain Chinese support for the new policy, Trump has agreed not to close the door on further talks with the North Koreans, the official said.

Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland said Sunday the policy review called on intelligence agencies and others to produce innovative ways to pressure North Korea. "They came back with some really interesting suggestions—sanctions, diplomatic things we could do, secondary sanctions we could do, and obviously, military options," she said. "And we presented them to the president; he was very pleased with it," she said.

The Kim regime was set to carry out a sixth underground nuclear blast over the weekend to coincide with celebrations marking the birth of the communist regime's late founder, Kim Il Sung.

Instead of a nuclear test, however, the regime conducted a less provocative flight test of a medium-range missile. The missile exploded shortly after launch in a setback for Kim, who has used missile tests in the past to posture and provoke the United States and its allies in the region.

Intelligence analysis of earlier nuclear tests has revealed significant progress by the North Koreans in developing a warhead small enough to be carried over long distances. Imagery analysis has shown the diameter of holes used in nuclear tests has decreased in size, indicating a missile-sized warhead is being developed.

Additional intelligence behind the new administration policy includes reports the North is further developing solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday displayed a new ICBM with other missiles in the country's arsenal.

North Korea is believed to have several KN-08 road-mobile ICBMs and is developing a longer-range version known as the KN-14, described as a "KN-08 on steroids."

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said last week that the danger from North Korea's long-range missiles is growing.

"Multiple administrations have tried to deal with the threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of putting a nuclear warhead into the United States, and we are simply closer now than we have ever been at any time in North Korea's history," he said.

McMaster said on ABC's This Week that Trump's cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield linked to a chemical arms attack was a clear signal the United States will act decisively and quickly against threats.

"It's clear that the president is determined not to allow this kind of capability to threaten the United States," McMaster said of the North Korean nuclear and missile threat. "And our president will take action that is in the best interest of the American people."

McMaster said Kim's arms buildup is a threat regionally and globally. "I mean, this is someone who has said not only does he want to develop a nuclear weapon, but he wants to use it to coerce others. He's said that he was willing to proliferate nuclear weapons once he develops them. And so this a grave threat to all people," he said.

Victor Cha, an Asian security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new Trump policy combines high-profile military and diplomatic moves with the president's unpredictability.

Recent statements on North Korea by Pence signal "a more muscular posture, but at the same time some unpredictability in terms of how Trump will react," Cha said on MSNBC.

"This is juxtaposed to the strategic patience policy that they characterize as entirely predictable but at the same time indecisive," he noted.