Vice President Mike Pence today issued a stern warning to North Korea during his visit to Seoul: remember Syria and Afghanistan, and don’t test Trump. Reuters:
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” Pence said in a joint appearance with Hwang.
“North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said. […]
“All options are on the table to achieve the objectives and ensure the stability of the people of this country,” he told reporters as tinny propaganda music floated across from the North Korean side of the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Pence here seems to be confirming our own take on the Syria strike: it was never about changing the game in Syria, but rather demonstrating the new administration’s resolve and willingness to use force. Announcing the strike over dessert with Xi Jinping sent an unmistakeable message: China should get serious about restraining North Korea, and Pyongyang would be unwise to test Trump’s limits. Likewise, Trump’s use of the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan now looks like a similar instance of shock-and-awe signaling, intended in part to reinforce the administration’s more overt and menacing gestures toward North Korea.
For all of the administration’s tough signaling, however, there are signs that Trump is pursuing a more cautious approach behind the scenes. This weekend, Pentagon officials quickly disputed an NBC News report that the U.S. was preparing a pre-emptive strike, and National Security Adviser HR McMaster told ABC’s This Week that the administration was exploring “all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully.” Trump himself seems determined to gain Chinese cooperation on North Korea by offering concessions on the trade issue.
In the meantime, the Trump Administration may be leaning on techniques developed under Obama: namely, the “left-of-launch” cyber attacks designed to disable missiles as they leave the launchpad. As the New York Times notes, those techniques are consistent with a major missile test flub by the North Koreans this weekend, which happened just seconds after liftoff. And though such cyber tactics are hardly a panacea for the Korean conundrum—as we explained in March—they could be a helpful short-term tool to frustrate the Norks’ tests.
In any case, Trump’s North Korea posture is coming into clearer view: a combination of menacing threats and demonstrative shows of force, combined with a backstage effort to tighten the economic screws on Pyongyang via Beijing (with some cyber sabotage thrown in for good measure). Whether or not this proves effective in the long term, it’s clear that there are few good alternative options after decades of kicking the can down the road.