But this launch was different.
Launching a ballistic missile over Japan is a serious provocation, and while the test would have helped North Korea gather important technical data about the missile and its reentry vehicle, it also was clearly intended to send a signal. Kim’s move was aimed at shaking the confidence of our allies. The test comes as the United States and South Korea are in the middle of annual joint exercises, and while the United States and Japan were conducting missile defense drills. Warnings of a potential inbound missile sounded across parts of northern Japan and were replayed by Japanese media across the country. By taking such a provocative step, Kim knew he would rattle nerves in Japan and South Korea, possibly prompting questions about whether the United States would be able to defend its allies should they come under attack.
Kim’s move was also intended to send a signal to Washington. It comes after President Trump had proudly crowed that Kim was “starting to respect us” following their hot war of words this month. Kim was surely listening — and he decided to take Trump up on the challenge. Late Tuesday, North Korean media reported that Kim was at the launch and that it was “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam.”
The situation with North Korea, in other words, got worse just after Trump declared it was getting better. That’s not an accident. So far, the Trump administration has been unable to execute a clear strategy for dealing with Kim — which is why the messaging and actions from the White House, State Department and Pentagon have been so uncoordinated and ineffective.
Reassuring our allies of our commitment to their defense and ensuring close coordination with them on any response to this most recent missile launch must be the United States’ first priority. After Monday’s launch, Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. A recent “2+2” meeting between U.S. and Japanese defense and foreign ministers also provided an important platform for contingency planning and discussion of crisis coordination. But these actions must be sustained — and they were already weakened by Trump’s statement after the launch, which neglected to include a reaffirmation of U.S. commitments to defend our allies — language that should be standard for any such event.
The Trump administration has not shown the kind of discipline required to manage this kind of coordination — either internally across the U.S. government or externally with our allies. Alliance coordination should always be part of dealing with the challenge from North Korea, and the North’s latest action will make such coordination both more difficult and more important. The mixed message we’ve seen from the Trump administration has at times left our allies unclear on U.S. intentions. In one case, Trump said South Korea would have to pay for deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, in contravention of an earlier agreement, setting off an uproar in Seoul and forcing national security adviser H.R. McMaster to clarify that the previous deal still stood. In another instance, Seoul was caught off guard by Trump’s tweet that “military solutions locked and loaded,” prompting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to maintain that “no one can make a decision on military action on the Korean Peninsula without our agreement.”
This mixed messaging is a symptom of a lack of coordination. But this is not just a communications problem: It is an inability to execute on a strategy to deal with the most serious national security challenge we face.
This administration claims to have a strategy. Even amid early turnover on Trump’s national security team — including the departure of the two top security advisers at the National Security Council — the new administration reportedly completed a review of North Korea policy, with Trump approving the outcome. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Tillerson recently laid out this approach in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. That strategy includes a familiar mix of tools to deal with the challenge: a peaceful pressure campaign involving multilateral sanctions via the United Nations and economic pressure from Beijing and Moscow; willingness to negotiate, with clear articulated criteria to judge Pyongyang’s seriousness; and military options, including defensive steps and development of plans should they be needed. This is essentially the plan that the Obama administration was pursuing at the end of its term, wrapped in a different tagline.
This is a reasonable strategy, but having a good policy on paper is not enough — implementation and execution is what makes it a strategy. To work, the elements need to be carefully coordinated. That’s essential to ensuring that diplomacy is backed by leverage; that deterrence is backed by capability; that intent is clearly and credibly communicated; that there is no daylight with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo; that Beijing and Moscow know what we expect of them, and the consequences for not following through; and that Pyongyang understands clearly the choice it faces.
All of that requires skillful diplomacy, a team in place to coordinate and carry that out, and avoiding harmful rhetoric. It requires arm-twisting to ensure that sanctions are implemented. It requires coordination with allies on defense posture, including enhanced missile defense. It requires a shared understanding internally and with our negotiating partners of the package of carrots and sticks that would be part of any negotiation. And it requires any debates remaining inside the walls of government, and not spilling in to the public or interfering in implementation of approved policy.
But the uncoordinated words and actions from Trump and his administration have undercut any serious effort to address this critical national security challenge. Key positions across the government remain vacant. Trump has not even nominated an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific; an assistant secretary of defense for Asia; or a U.S. ambassador to South Korea. We still have no undersecretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation, nor key assistant secretaries under that chain. This leaves critical gaps in the team that would coordinate closely with our allies, particularly in a crisis; marshal international efforts to implement and enforce the new U.N. Security Council sanctions; engage in diplomatic coordination with partners and allies; and ensure our defense posture is where it needs to be. The administration has also shown signs of politicizing intelligence, causing a credibility gap that will undercut our ability to prompt partners and allies to take action on sanctions violations.
Coordination with our allies is also critical to reducing the chance of miscalculation in a crisis. That risk is increased with every contradiction. Our adversaries will seek to take advantage of any divisions, leaving us vulnerable. It’s critical that our allies believe in the credibility of our commitments, and understand how we intend to respond in a range of scenarios. And it’s critical that the United States understand how our allies plan to react in such scenarios, as well.
The United States has established mechanisms with both South Korea and Japan to plan for a range of contingencies, including a counter-provocation plan with Seoul to respond to scenarios like the North’s 2010 shelling of a South Korean island. This plan calls for a “South-Korean led, U.S.-supported” response — but this depends on a clear U.S. understanding of the actions South Korea would take in various contingencies, and what the United States would therefore be committed to in response. It’s critical that the Trump administration revalidate such understandings so that there are no surprises should the North launch a similar attack, and ensure that key personnel are in place to manage important alliance coordination mechanisms, particularly in a crisis.
But even with these plans in place, uncoordinated messages from Trump administration officials — and especially from the president — would undercut that careful planning and could leave our allies guessing about how the United States would respond. Off-the-cuff statements that are vague on intentions and not coordinated with our allies — like Trump’s “fire and fury” threat — will ultimately make our allies feels less secure. On Wednesday morning, though, Trump did just that, tweeting that “talking is not the answer.”
The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2017
Almost immediately, he was contradicted by Mattis, who told reporters that “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”
Monday night’s launch may open the most serious chapter we have seen with North Korea. Our allies are looking to the United States to lead. In the absence of a clear U.S. approach, they may take matters in to their own hands. Dividing the United States from our allies may be part of North Korea’s goal — and an inability to execute on a coordinated strategy with our allies would play right in to that.