North Korea crisis: From diplomacy to direct confrontation, Donald Trump is left with no good options

After two months of relative quiet, North Korea launched its most powerful weapon yet early Wednesday, claiming a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that some observers believe could reach Washington and the entire eastern US seaboard.

 North Korea crisis: From diplomacy to direct confrontation, Donald Trump is left with no good options

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

In a special state media broadcast hours later, North Korea said it successfully fired a "significantly more" powerful, nuclear-capable ICBM it called the Hwasong-15. Outside governments and analysts concurred the North had made a jump in missile capability.

In a government statement released through state media, North Korea said the Hwasong-15, the "greatest ICBM," could be armed with a "super-large heavy nuclear warhead" and is capable of striking the "whole mainland" of the United States. The North said the missile reached a height of 4,475 kilometres (2,780 miles) and travelled 950 kilometres (590 miles) before accurately hitting a sea target, similar to the flight data announced by South Korea's military.

It said leader Kim Jong-un after the successful launch "declared with pride" that the country has achieved its goal of becoming a "rocket power." State TV said Kim gave the order on Tuesday and broadcast a photo of Kim's signed order where he wrote: "Test launch is approved. Taking place at the daybreak of Nov. 29! Fire with courage for the party and country!"

The firing is a clear message of defiance aimed at the Trump administration, which a week earlier had restored North Korea to a US list of terror sponsors. It also ruins nascent diplomatic efforts, raises fears of war or a pre-emptive US strike and casts a deeper shadow over the security of the Winter Olympics early next year in South Korea.

In response to the launch, Trump said the United States will "take care of it." He told reporters after the launch: "It is a situation that we will handle."

While Trump did not elaborate, his options are somewhat limited.

1. Diplomacy: The art of the deal

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly put out a statement. “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” he said.

Other than enforcing existing UN sanctions "the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic” travelling to North Korea, Tillerson said in a statement. The UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday afternoon at the request of Japan, the US and South Korea.

According to a report on ABCnews, National Security Adviser HR McMaster shared a similar sentiment on 2 November when he addressed reporters at the White House briefing room.

"I think we have to be a little patient here for at least a few months to see what more we and others can do, including China," McMaster said. "I don't think we need to reassess our strategy now. I think we have to give it a couple of months, a few months, and then see what adjustments we might need to make," he said, according to the ABC report.

2. Direct confrontation: War, what is it good for?

In September, Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters, "Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming. We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea," he added, but warned: "We have many options to do so."

According to a report in The Guardian, Park Byung-kwang, director of centre for north-east Asia at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, a thinktank affiliated with the country’s intelligence agency, said, “Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to talk: he wants to develop the economy and a nuclear arsenal, not one or the other but both at the same time. The crisis on the Korean peninsula is getting worse, which means the likelihood of Trump exerting more pressure and even [a] military strike is becoming more feasible.”

3. Tightening sanctions: Kim doesn't care

Alexander Gillespie, penning an editorial for Al-Jazeera, writes that while Trump can tighten sanctions and hope that they bring North Korea to the negotiating table as they have done with other countries which acted in defiance of the international community, it is impossible to obtain the comprehensive sanctions desired because some countries, especially China—which accounts for about 85 percent of North Korea's trade—does not wish to squeeze that hard on either the economic or diplomatic veins of their ally.

He also argues that making Kim Jong-un feel the pain of sanctions is essentially pointless because he simply does not care if his country suffers. "Weathering pain such as famine to achieve longer-term political goals is something North Korea is fine with. Unlike in Iran, where the pain of the sanctions upon their citizens made those in power listen and then negotiate, in North Korea, the hereditary power and Stalinist-like regime make rulers deaf and insensitive to the impact of sanctions," he writes.

4. Punishing China: Risking blowblack from the Dragon

According to an editorial in The Conversation, if the United States begins exerting pressure on China in an attempt to have it influence North Korea, it risks getting into a trade war it can't win.

Trump earlier tweeted:

However, the United States consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US $463 billion worth of goods and China, which is the US' largest creditor, has enormous leverage over the United States. Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea, according to the editorial.

In short, Trump has no good options on dealing with North Korea.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Nov 29, 2017 22:59:20 IST