North Korea has been consistent and uncompromising in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. In 2017, on an average, North Korea carried out missile tests every 2.6 weeks. The North Korean pursuit has brought unimagined success to its nuclear and missile programmes. It is undeniable that Pyongyang is quite close to having its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). North Korea already possessed the capacity to reach any part of the Northeast Asia; and its great leap in the past few months towards attaining the capability to reach the US would definitely change the security equation in the region.
Earlier, the US had the leisure to follow a policy of ‘strategic patient’ with North Korea, but now, North Korean belligerence has been increasing at an alarming pace and the Washington needs to formulate and execute its Pyongyang policy immediately.
Unfortunately, contrary to Pyongyang’s consistency, the US’ responses have till now been confused and insufficient. The US administration led by President Donald Trump has been attempting various strategies simultaneously in a highly incoherent manner. There are statements by US policymakers that do not give any sense of a policy. For example, the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, stated that the US was keeping all the options, including the military one, on table with regard to the issue of North Korea. On the other hand, in early August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US is not pushing for regime change in North Korea. He said, “we do not seek a regime change, we do not seek the collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.” He acknowledged that confrontation with North Korea could be catastrophic and the US would prefer negotiations backed by economic pressure. Meanwhile, the Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, who may become the next US National Security Advisor, does not seem to share Tillerson’s views. On 20 July, he signaled that regime change in North Korea would be a better option. Even Vice President Mike Pence indicated that talks with North Korea were not on table in the given circumstances.
In a more outrageous statement, US’ Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated that Trump told him he was “willing to go to war with North Korea if they (North Korea) continued to try to hit America with an ICBM.” He further quoted Trump that "if there's going to be a war to stop him (Kim Jon-un), it will be over there. If thousands die, they will die over there. They're not going to die over here. If Graham’s revelations are true, it is quite contrary to Trump’s earlier stand in when he had said that he would be ‘honoured’ to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for talks. These flip-flops in the US policy on regime change, talks, and military actions and economic sanctions are unlikely to fetch any positive result on the issue. Rather it would make North Korea further suspicious about the US intent.
The next challenge for the US administration is regarding winning China’s support in the process of denuclearisng North Korea. Here too, US policy makers have been making contradictory remarks. In fact, Trump himself was quite appreciative of the Chinese President Xi Jinping and in April 2017, he said, “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea.” However, in July 2017, Trump tweeted that “I am very disappointed in China… they do nothing for us with North Korea, just talks.”
Another incoherence in the US policy emanates from the fact that two of its important allies in East Asia – Japan and South Korea – appear to have different approach towards North Korea. Whereas, Japan under Shinzo Abe prefers continuation or rather augmentation of tough approach in dealing with North Korea; and South Korean President Moon Jae-in is placating North Korea for talks. The Trump administration needs to coordinate its policy with them and it has not been easy till now.
While North Korea is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the US administration has responded with acrobatic stances, which may look interesting and news-worthy but has had no positive impact on the ground. Actually, these stances of the US may further deteriorate the security situation in the region instead of improving it.
There could be two explanations for the US’ flip-flops: One, Trump has gathered incompatible people around himself and they are just fumbling in dark; or two, most policy makers in the Trump administration are basically hardliners who want military action on North Korea but since China does not allow it, they are in a fix. It is also possible that both explanations are simultaneously applicable. Whatever the explanation for the US’ flip-flops on North Korea, Washington must realise that unless its North Korea policy becomes consistent, coherent and coordinated, there could be dangerous consequences.