Since becoming President, Donald Trump has, at times, looked like a wrecking ball to the international order. But when it comes to North Korea, he may be forced to operate within the narrow constraints of his predecessors.
Some members of the President’s Republican Party have previously argued for a more forceful response to North Korean aggression. Others have advocated the drawing of a red line, telling North Korea explicitly that any intercontinental ballistic missile would be blown up on the launch pad. Trump’s Twitter activity, prior to his inauguration, suggested that he was in agreement with this line of thinking.
But while taking such steps would be vigorous and decisive, it could possibly lead to a wider war. Escalation can happen very quickly on the peninsula — as was the case in the summer of 1950, when a series of border clashes on the 38th parallel turned into an all-out invasion of South Korea. This context is important to remember when trying to understand the limits facing Trump in constraining North Korea.
The Obama administration pushed very hard for the inclusion of human rights and even International Criminal Court prosecution as a pressure point against North Korea, much to the anger of the regime. The lack of criticism of North Korea’s many documented human rights violations from the State Department and new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is surely music to Pyongyang’s ears.
For all its reputation of being a crazed and irrational state, North Korea appears to be taking a rational approach to Trump and waiting to see what happens in Washington. North Korean state media is at present keeping its powder dry: it has not yet attacked Donald Trump by name or criticized him for anything.
It is doubtful that Trump will be able to change things. Short of sending Tillerson or traveling to North Korea himself, it seems unlikely that he will make a significant breakthrough.