As the world ponders the meaning of President Donald Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” on North Korea, it’s worth asking why his predecessors never took those steps to stop its nuclear program.
When Bill Clinton was confronted with the threat of North Korea’s exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he considered military force. But he ended up going for negotiations in what became known as the Joint Framework Agreement. The North Koreans froze their plutonium program in exchange for fuel shipments and a light water reactor from the U.S. Neither side ever fully delivered.
Then there was George W. Bush. He didn’t like North Korea. He put the nation in the original “axis of evil.” On his watch, the U.S. discovered Pyongyang had a secret uranium enrichment program, in violation of the spirit of Clinton’s deal. Then in 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device. By 2007, Bush had lifted crippling sanctions on the regime’s elites and entered into new negotiations. And surprise: The North Koreans backed out of those talks at the end, too.
By the time Barack Obama came into power, the North Koreans were back to building up their program. They perfected missiles, sunk a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island. The current tyrant, Kim Jong Un, ascended to power and proceeded to consolidate his position, killing his uncle and later his half brother. All the while, Obama pursued a policy of “strategic patience,” aimed at not rewarding Kim’s regime for its provocations and rogue behavior.
Now Trump has inherited a mess. Not only is Kim testing ballistic missiles at an alarming rate, as The Washington Post reported this week, but also the Defense Intelligence Agency now assesses North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear warhead so that it can fit inside a missile. Game, set, match.
So why didn’t the last three presidents take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities when they had the chance? The answer is Seoul, the thriving capital of South Korea. The North has enough artillery pieces within range of this metropolis to kill hundreds of thousands of people, which could very well begin a world war and throw the global economy into a tailspin.
Past presidents have understandably feared the North would retaliate in this way. But for some today, that fear is fading. John Plumb, a former director of defense policy and strategy for Obama’s National Security Council, told the Atlantic last month: “If I were the Trump administration, I would be looking at the threat to incinerate Seoul and trying to figure out how real it is. Because to me, it’s become such a catchphrase, and it almost — it starts to lose credibility. Attacking Seoul, a civilian population center, is different from attacking a remote military outpost. It’s dicey, there’s no doubt about it.”
Intelligence officials have told me in recent months that this threat remains very real. While there are steps the U.S. can take to mitigate the problem, such as dropping cluster munitions on the big guns, it’s an imperfect and high-risk strategy. An attack on North Korea would be unpredictable and could unleash far worse on U.S. forces (which have been stationed in South Korea for more than 60 years), not to mention allies like Japan.
All of this gets back to Trump’s bluster. At this point we as Americans ought to expect more careful words from the president. At the same time, nothing Trump said was that different from the implicit threat against North Korea, or any power that threatens American cities with nuclear destruction.
Don’t get me wrong: There are few people on the planet more deserving of “fire and fury” than Kim Jong Un. But would such a strike even eliminate its nuclear program? How far is Trump willing to go? Will he order an invasion of North Korea to topple the regime? And if he does, would he commit the manpower, capital and time to stabilize the country once the Kim dynasty falls?
According to retired Adm. William Perry, Clinton’s second secretary of defense, the U.S. couldn’t take out North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure with military strikes, given how much it has expanded in the last 20 years. What’s more, the price paid by South Koreans would be unacceptable. This is what he told a group of journalists this spring at an event sponsored by the Hoover Institution.
It’s possible that Trump is counting on his reputation as an impetuous novice — one who Kim just might fear would roll the dice by attacking North Korea. But Trump’s ultimatum allows the boy-tyrant in Pyongyang to test the president’s mettle. (Already the North Korean state media has threatened Guam.) We can expect more taunts and threats in the coming days, proving Trump’s threat was hollow. As hollow as past presidents’ pledges to do the same.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.