In this occasional series, we will bring you up to speed on the biggest national security stories of the week.
North Korea and the United States have exchanged alarmingly confrontational statements in recent weeks, fueling fears a miscalculation could lead to open military conflict. Yet despite this unease, the U.S. military’s top general told lawmakers this week that Pyongyang’s military posture remains unchanged and that the United States continues to support an “economic and diplomatic pressure campaign.”
Pyongyang has a history of reacting strongly to U.S. words and actions, having threatened to “reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness” and turn Seoul’s presidential office into a “sea of fire.”
But behind its words, Pyongyang is seeking something more: to understand President Trump. As The Post’s Anna Fifield reports this week, North Korean government officials have quietly reached out to GOP analysts in Washington hoping to decode the commander in chief’s brash strategy and messages.
Here’s what you need to know about North Korea’s ambitions:
1. It wants to remain a nuclear state.
Despite international pressure and condemnation, North Korea refuses to surrender its nuclear weapons program. Its representatives made that clear this month during a multilateral meeting in Switzerland, where officials refused even to broach the subject of denuclearization.
Pyongyang considers nuclear weapons a legitimate and rational “strategic option” to counter what it deems threatening military action from the United States. And its leaders have said repeatedly that the regime is willing to deploy them if provoked.
2. It wants to be seen as powerful as it defies sanctions.
In one of his latest statements, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country seeks to “establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S.” The 33-year-old views the United States as the aggressor, calling the international community’s policy toward Pyongyang “hostile.”
Hoping to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile program, the U.N. Security Council agreed unanimously on Sept. 11 to impose its toughest economic sanctions yet, limiting oil imports to North Korea and forbidding countries from accepting its textile exports. A week later, Trump signed an executive order sanctioning eight banks and more than two dozen individuals for their dealings with the rogue regime.
Yet North Korea remains defiant and resilient, seemingly impervious such action.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin phrased it recently: “They’d rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program.”
3. It wants to make sense of Trump.
With no formal diplomatic dialogue between the United States and North Korea, Pyongyang has invited Republican strategists, analysts and scholars for meetings. Some have declined, but there are seven outstanding invitations with various organizations, Fifield reports.
“My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going, so they’re trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official. “They haven’t seen the U.S. act like this before.”
In particular, the North seeks to understand why Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seem to contradict Trump. For instance, when Trump tweeted “Talking is not the answer!” in response to North Korean threats, Mattis calmly responded by saying diplomacy remains a viable option.
“We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” he said. “We always look for more. We’re never complacent.”
And after Trump threatened that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury,” Tillerson sought to assuage fears at home, saying “Americans should sleep well” and that the situation remains unchanged.