But what options does Trump really have? As we've detailed before, the scope for tough, unilateral action against Pyongyang is virtually nonexistent. The diplomatic chessboard is complex and has multiple players; the threat of military escalation or punitive strikes would put millions of lives at risk.
That dilemma demonstrates how the latest North Korean test was “perfectly calibrated to create political mischief,” Stephen Haggard, a U.S.-based Korea expert, said to my colleague Anna Fifield.
It panicked the Japanese, whose right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, may now have further cause to beef up his nation's military capabilities. It adds to the headaches of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who hopes for more productive engagement with Pyongyang. And it deepens China's awkward role in the crisis, caught between its position as the country with the most leverage over North Korea and its regional rivalries with Japan and South Korea.
But although North Korea certainly meant to provoke, it also seemed to deliberately skirt an all-out reaction. It did not, for example, fire in the direction of the American Pacific territory of Guam (although it later styled the test as a “prelude” to some action against Guam). “The launch shows how Kim Jong Un is weirdly conservative, calibrating tests so that they are difficult to counter, flying just beneath the radar of a required kinetic response,” Haggard said.
But that doesn't mean that North Korea is showing any interest in conciliation with its neighbors or Washington. “This is not the action of a country that is interested in showing restraint or in creating a glide path to dialogue, at least not on our terms,” said James Schoff, an expert on East Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to The Washington Post.
The strategic complexity of dealing with the nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang ought to warn off Trump from sleepwalking into another potential geopolitical showdown.
Already, some hawks in Washington are renewing calls for Trump to declare that Iran is not in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with world powers. No matter the objections of some of his senior advisers, Trump himself is desperate to scrap the agreement, which is the linchpin of President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy.
According to the Guardian, the White House has been pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence of Iran violating its commitments. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pressed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body that monitors Iran's nuclear sites, to inspect the country's sensitive military facilities. The Iranians would probably reject those demands, and the move could provoke the regime to back away from the accord itself.
But it's more likely that the United States would find itself isolated in the event that the deal collapses. European officials are sticking by the agreement, and have pledged to keep enforcing it even if the United States pulls out.
If Trump does withdraw from the deal and reinstitutes the old sanctions, there's a chance the Iranians and Europeans could carry on. But it's more likely that pressures within Iran would lead the regime to kick out inspectors and possibly restart its uranium enrichment.
Analysts point to the historical lesson offered by North Korea. In 1994, the Clinton administration and America's Asian allies negotiated what is known as the “Agreed Framework” with North Korea, curtailing Pyongyang's nuclear program. (My colleague Glenn Kessler wrote an enlightening piece about Clinton's North Korean diplomacy this month.) But then came President George W. Bush, whose administration moved to jettison the agreement.
“It did so in 2002, but had no plan to put in its place — just a nebulous and belligerent notion of confronting North Korea,” noted Michael Mazarr, a political scientist at the Rand Corp. “Pyongyang responded immediately and decisively, firing up its main reactor, expelling IAEA inspectors, sending 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods for reprocessing, and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Its nuclear program has been in overdrive ever since, leading directly to today's crisis.”
A similar scenario is possible with Iran, which also expanded its nuclear capabilities in the absence of diplomacy during the Bush years. Tehran's foes in Riyadh, Jerusalem and Washington see the Islamic Republic as a dangerous, destabilizing force, sowing discord through its support for proxy groups elsewhere in the Middle East. They were upset that the nuclear deal did nothing to curb Iran's other bad behaviors. But ending the agreement over its nuclear program would almost certainly destabilize the region further.
“If Iran is stirring trouble elsewhere, taking away the only means of preventing it from acquiring yet more dangerous weapons seems an absurd way to go about taming it,” wrote Financial Times columnist Roula Khalaf. “With the crisis intensifying in North Korea — which, unlike Iran, does have nuclear weapons — ensuring an Iranian nuclear program stays inactive for a decade is rather reassuring. Though the circumstances and the nature of the regimes of North Korea and Iran are different, the same painstaking multilateral diplomacy that produced the deal with Tehran will be needed to resolve the stand-off with Pyongyang peacefully.”
Multilateral diplomacy is not exactly Trump's forte. But, ultimately, it's the only real option on his table.
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