Can Trump Manage North Korea?

DENVER – US President Donald Trump’s administration, like many before it, has had a rocky start; but the most pressing challenges are yet to come. Among them will be North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-un, used his New Year’s Day address to announce that his country has built – and is prepared to test – an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Trump, who was still the president-elect at the time, sprang into action, tweeting, “It won’t happen!” One can only imagine how the North Korean government might have interpreted this statement. Trump may have been issuing a threat and establishing an official red line through his favorite means of communication; he also might merely have been making a prediction, and betting against North Korea’s technical prowess. Or maybe he just wants to keep everyone guessing about what he will do.

Whatever his motivation, Trump has now inherited the perennial North Korea problem – a recurring global crisis that has been on every US president’s list of foreign-policy concerns since the 1980s. But this time, the threat is real: during Trump’s watch, North Korea could very well obtain the means to strike the United States with a weapon of mass destruction.

The North Korean government is not so much interested in testing the new US president as it is in testing nuclear devices and missiles. As its weapons program lumbers forward, it has made little effort to hide its periodic failures, marking a departure from past practices. Speculation about North Korea’s motives for pursuing nuclear weapons is as old as the effort itself. But while it would be useful to know North Korea’s true objective – regime survival, global prestige, self-defense, and regional hegemony are the most frequent explanations – it ultimately doesn’t really matter.