Will North Korea be the Trump Administration’s Greatest Challenge?

North Korea fired a salvo of four ballistic missiles Monday morning around 7:30 am local time (5:30 pm Sunday EST). The missiles flew an average of 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan. A U.S. official noted that there was a fifth missile that failed to launch. While there is no evidence that the missiles demonstrated any new range capabilities, Pyongyang is boasting that the test shows it can hit U.S. military bases in Japan, and a salvo launch could potentially overwhelm regional missile defense capabilities, including the near-future deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. Nonetheless, any test launch – even if ostensibly a failure – allows North Korea to learn from it and improve its capabilities to strike key U.S. and allied strategic locations. Ultimately, the North is striving for a working intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range that could reach the United States.


While provocative, North Korea’s most recent missile launch is not unexpected. On March 1, the U.S. and South Korea began their annual joint military exercises, which involve at least 320,000 South Korean and American troops. The exercises consist of combined ground, air, naval and special operations, including simulated decapitating strikes on North Korean leadership. Predictably, North Korea announced last week that it would respond aggressively to the drills in South Korea. Bruce Bennett, a North Korean expert at the Rand Corporation, explained that this is not unusual behavior: “Every year … they try to do something to defy the exercises.”

Repeated ballistic missile tests, including a test in February that showed major technological advancements, reinforce North Korea’s commitment to building a reliable ballistic missile program that includes ICBMs. On New Year’s Day, leader Kim Jong-Un stated that the country had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test-launch of intercontinental ballistic missile” to “cope with the imperialists’ nuclear war threats.” In response, President Trump tweeted “It won’t happen!” but did not elaborate on how he planned to stop North Korea’s rapidly-developing nuclear capabilities.

Despite strong international pressure and sanctions, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have continued to move forward. The status quo policy of “strategic patience” and a refusal to diplomatically engage with Pyongyang has been ineffective. It is time to change course by entering into diplomatic talks with North Korea without preconditions. Critics argue that this would put the American negotiators in a weak position, but simply meeting at the table does not commit the United States to a single concession. If anything, it puts diplomats in a strong position to potentially defuse a tense and escalating situation. But make no mistake, any negotiation would be arduous. Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation contributor and MIT expert Jim Walsh puts it best, “Stopping North Korea’s dangerous nuclear program can be done only with diplomacy. That’s painstaking work and far more difficult than slapping on another round of sanctions.”

In February, in what was seen as a positive sign of the willingness of both sides to negotiate, North Korean officials were invited to the U.S. for informal talks with former U.S. officials. Similar “Track 1.5.” dialogues have been hosted by Malaysia, Switzerland, Germany and Mongolia during the past few years, but have not been held in the U.S. since 2011. Unfortunately, the talks were cancelled when the State Department declined to give the North Korean officials visas after the Pukguksong-2 missile test and the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, with an illegal nerve agent. North Korea’s destabilizing behavior should not be ignored, but the cancellation of the talks was a loss for both sides.

The rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea will make diplomatic negotiations more difficult, but also more vital. Going forward, the U.S. should combine existing sanctions with diplomatic negotiations to freeze the North Korean nuclear program and de-escalate the situation on the Korean peninsula before matters spin completely out of control.

Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Helen Thompson is a Policy Intern at the Center.