Three US administrations spanning 24 years — Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama — have failed to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
All of North Korea’s programs are leading to one thing: the ability to hit Los Angeles or another large U.S. city with a nuclear first strike. North Korea has enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium for about 10 warheads. Its miniaturization and weaponization technology is well-advanced. Its missile tests have moved from short range to intermediate range, and are now on the brink of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Once a warhead is mounted on an ICBM, Los Angeles is in imminent danger.
North Korea is about three–four years away from this goal.
The Trump administration is hoping that war in not necessary and that it can steer the North Koreans toward acceptable behavior through the use of financial sanctions. The U.S. pursued this policy with some success during both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, but both presidents backed off from sanctions in exchange for vague promises from North Korea that were never honored in full. The Obama administration did almost nothing to deter North Korea and essentially ignored the issue for eight years in order to appease China. Now the Trump administration is playing the sanctions card again.
North Korean banks have been banned from the global payments system called SWIFT. This is a powerful move, but North Korea can work around it. It can use Russian and Chinese banks to make international payments on its behalf without disclosing the name of the real beneficiary to SWIFT.
The solution to this is for the U.S. to impose sanctions on Chinese and Russian banks doing business in the U.S. that facilitate North Korean payments. That’s an effective form of sanction, but it risks escalating tensions with Russia and China. Trump may move in that direction anyway.