The Trump administration’s North Korea policy started taking shape this week. On his first official trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared an end to the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience, ruled out negotiations with North Korea unless the North gave up nuclear weapons, and said that the United States would not rule out military action. Despite Tillerson’s attempt to put daylight between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, insisting on denuclearization and not ruling out the use of military force have been features of U.S. policy toward North Korea under both Bush and Obama. And this is precisely why the Trump administration’s approach, as it stands now, has little chance of succeeding.
Reining in North Korea has rapidly risen to the top of the Trump administration’s list of international challenges. In February, Pyongyang tested a solid-fueled ballistic missile with a tracked transporter erector launcher that will be very difficult for the United States to track and target in a preemptive attack. The following month, during the annual U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercises, which North Korea views as a dress rehearsal for an invasion, the North launched at least four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan simulating a nuclear attack against a U.S. Marine Corps air station at Iwakuni. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey succinctly described the Foal Eagle/missile launch interaction, “If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion.”