Unless a major diplomatic breakthrough occurs in the next few days, tensions with North Korea will spike to levels not seen in the last two years. That’s because Pyongyang seems all but certain to test an updated version of a long-range missile, or ICBM, that has the potential to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon — perhaps as soon as Christmas Eve.
The good news is that the Trump administration is up to the challenge and is already gaming out potential reactions to ensure North Korea pays a price for its actions. At least for the moment, there is no talk of a “bloody nose” strike or military option. However, Washington is ready to increase pressure if Pyongyang decides to give up on diplomacy and create a crisis.
The writing on the wall could not be clearer. North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un has stated that if he does not receive certain concessions from Washington he would embark on a “new way” or “new path.” Pyongyang is seeking sanctions relief and some sort of guarantee of this regime’s security, or it will work to increase the power and sophistication of its nuclear weapons arsenal.
We have already had a preview of what is to come. In two separate tests, North Korea seems to have laid the technical groundwork for what they have referred to as “Christmas gift” that all but supposes a missile test.
First, the country conducted what appeared to be a test-firing of a new missile engine — something North Korea has done nearly every time it readies the launch of a new ICBM or missile platform.
But perhaps even more disturbing is Pyongyang’s most recent test, something the rogue regime described as successful and that “will be applied to further bolster up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
Lasting for roughly seven minutes, the timing could indicate, according to some experts, that North Korea tested a new missile reentry vehicle. Such a device is a type of shielding to help a nuclear warhead survive the punishing heat and forces of the atmosphere to successfully land on a target — like a U.S. city. This would be the last thing North Korea needs to develop to have a viable nuclear weapons program that can hit targets at long-range.
Putting this all together, a possible scenario of how Kim could drive tensions back to the dark days of 2017 is clear. North Korea, in order to try and get America back to the bargaining table from a position of strength, may want to show the world that its missile program can hit America. Imagine on Christmas Eve — or Christmas in North Korea — that Kim fires a missile high into the sky not only showing he has the range to strike the U.S. but that his nuclear warheads can also survive atmospheric reentry. There is even some indication that Kim would test the missile by having it fly over Japan, like he did on two occasions in 2017.
When I posed this scenario to multiple senior White House officials, a clear pattern emerged: the administration is ready for the worst but hopeful another nuclear standoff can be avoided.
“We have, and will remain, always open to dialogue with the DPRK — the door is open for talks and we are ready to be very flexible in finding an agreement that works for all sides,” explained one senior White House official. “But if North Korea does decide to test a fully operational ICBM in some sort of effort to test our resolve they won’t like our reaction — and we will respond.”
When pressed on what the response would be, this official would not give exact specifics. When pressed, the official did note that the prior maximum pressure campaign that was intensified during late 2017 would only get tougher.
When asked if this meant more sanctions, the official explained that “sanctions would be just the beginning” and would be part of a larger campaign. “President Trump would feel insulted if Kim tried to not only make him look foolish, but break a personal pledge that North Korea would halt these sorts of missile tests. The president looks at such actions as an attempt to hurt his reelection chances — and he does not take kindly to such a threat.”
Another senior White House official was even clearer: “North Korea has a choice to work with us to find a solution — without some sort of pressure tactics of a time limit — or not. There is a solution here, but testing missiles or a nuclear weapon will only take a us a longer time to get there.”
At the very least, Washington could go to the United Nations Security Council and ask for increased sanctions, as any missile tests are a violation of past resolutions. Washington could also wage an offensive campaign against North Korean cyber activities, as Pyongyang has made billions of dollars in various types of cybertheft of banks, cryptocurrency exchanges and other financial instruments.
The Trump administration could also actively sanction any entity that helps Pyongyang launder money — and that means the potential sanctioning of Chinese and Russian banks. All of this combined could deprive Kim of billions of dollars in revenue he needs to not only build more nuclear weapons, but continue to rule his country, which has a floundering economy to begin with.
The good news is that none of this must happen. North Korea still has time to choose the path of negotiation and diplomacy. “We stand ready to talk. We stand ready to find a compromise. But we can’t do it all on our own. We need a partner in Pyongyang who will work with us. But if North Korea decides to return to the days of long-range missile and nuclear tests, we will have no choice but to react.”