On Tuesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japanese territory, continuing a trend of military escalation with the U.S. and its allies Japan and South Korea. Concern among Japanese and South Korean citizens is rising, and global markets have been roiled. In response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump once again discussed ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea, and Trump firmly declared, “All options are on the table.” But tough talk and wise policy are not the same thing.
Unfortunately, short of war, there are few remaining options for increasing pressure on Pyongyang. While punishing North Korea for this latest provocation seems perfectly rational, what if the only result is greater defiance? What if punitive actions intended to compel or deter the regime have the opposite effect? Before taking new measures to further pressure Pyongyang, the administration should consider the strategic logic of such a move.
First, the administration should heed the lessons of previously unsuccessful efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. Although sanctions undoubtedly slowed North Korea’s march toward fielding nuclear weapons, they ultimately failed, and Pyongyang has rapidly accelerated its testing program since Kim Jong-un took power. The United Nations Security Council recently imposed more heavy sanctions against the regime in response to its missile testing, and Trump told reporters that the additional sanctions his administration was considering are “as strong as they get.” Ironically, economic sanctions may cause the regime to pursue more launches and nuclear tests to demonstrate its resolve.
An alternative strategy that Washington tested recently was matching North Korean bluster with bluster of its own. Trump’s recent warning that Pyongyang would face “fire and fury” was initially thought by some to have deterred Pyongyang from further tests. But Tuesday’s launch clearly suggests that North Korea has not been dissuaded, and far from gaining the North Koreans’ respect as the president suggested, that tough talk may have unintentionally increased the likelihood of conflict.
The timing of Pyongyang’s recent launch is important. It occurred during an annual joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea, and on the heels of a joint military exercise between the U.S. and Japan. North Korea’s state-run newspaper recently compared the drills to “throwing fuel onto fire,” saying that they would “worsen the situation” and could “escalate into a real war.”
The exchange of U.S.-led military exercises and North Korean weapon tests has become a time-honored tradition. However, Pyongyang has previously offered to halt nuclear and missile testing if the drills are suspended—a proposal supported by China. And while the U.S. and its allies have every right to conduct joint exercises, the benefits of these drills should be weighed against their geostrategic risks. If the objective is to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and avoid the outbreak of war, high-profile military exercises and additional deployments may do more harm than good.
Pyongyang has historically used provocative actions to bring the U.S. and South Korea to the negotiating table. Previous tests have been met with much-needed humanitarian aid and assistance to the North Korean people. The Trump administration is justifiably cautious about rewarding bad behavior, and has recently questioned the utility of negotiations, apparently in favor of demonstrations of force. However, if both sides rely on military escalation and brinksmanship as their main negotiating tactic, the most likely result may be a head-on collision.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu cautioned to leave one’s opponent a way out, and to avoid pressing a desperate foe too hard. The Trump administration would be wise to continue to lean on China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, to open a pathway for dialogue. Trump has touted his skill as a dealmaker in the business world. So long as all options are on the table, Trump should ensure that negotiations remain on that menu.
Brian Finlay is president and CEO of the nonpartisan Stimson Center. James Siebens is a foreign affairs and national security analyst at the Stimson Center.