As President Trump’s tweets alleging a wiretap conspiracy fanned a political firestorm this weekend, a much more significant security story fell through the cracks. According to an exclusive New York Times report, the U.S. has been waging a covert cyber campaign against North Korea’s nuclear program for three years—an effort that showed initial success in disrupting missile tests, but which has lately failed to deter Pyongyang’s steady progress toward an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States.
With President Trump now at the helm, he faces a choice among highly imperfect policy responses:
He could order the escalation of the Pentagon’s cyber and electronic warfare effort, but that carries no guarantees. He could open negotiations with the North to freeze its nuclear and missile programs, but that would leave a looming threat in place. He could prepare for direct missile strikes on the launch sites, which Mr. Obama also considered, but there is little chance of hitting every target. He could press the Chinese to cut off trade and support, but Beijing has always stopped short of steps that could lead to the regime’s collapse.
In two meetings of Mr. Trump’s national security deputies in the Situation Room, the most recent on Tuesday, all those options were discussed, along with the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a dramatic warning. Administration officials say those issues will soon go to Mr. Trump and his top national security aides.
The Times reports President Obama concluded some time before 2014 that America’s traditional antimissile systems would not serve as an adequate defense against a North Korean attack; even under ideal conditions, interceptor tests were registering a 56% failure rate, and appeared to not be improving much over time. That conclusion precipitated Obama’s decision to explore cyber options, including “left of launch” strikes to disable missiles before they leave the launchpad. But the resilience of North Korea’s systems suggests that a new tack may be needed, and fast.
Whatever choice Trump makes will be highly risky. Some experts warn that “left of launch” strikes set a dangerous precedent that could make us vulnerable to pre-emptive attack, many South Koreans are already balking at the prospect of reintroducing nukes in their country, and negotiating with Pyongyang could be a dead end. In any case, the Trump administration’s decision to cancel back-channel talks with the North Koreans suggests that direct diplomacy is not forthcoming. Trump has instead suggested he would pressure Pyongyang by tightening the screws on the Chinese, whom he has said “could solve the problem very easily if they want to.”
The past three Presidents kept kicking the North Korean can down the road, but the end of that road may now be in view. Just one day after the Times story, North Korea launched four more missiles off Japan’s northwest coast—not ICBMs, thankfully, but hardly a reassuring development as Pyongyang marches toward that milestone. War in Asia could be closer than anyone likes to think; forestalling that outcome will take a concerted effort by a White House that has lately been more occupied with putting out flames generated by the President’s Twitter account.