Trump's first crisis: North Korea's nuclear threat

A handout picture released by North Korean news agency, KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) on January 1, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivering the new year message in Pyongyang.  / AFP PHOTO / KNCA / STRINGERSTRINGER/AFP/Getty Images ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **

Donald Trump unwisely picked a fight with China over Taiwan barely days after he eked out a victory in the 2016 election. Beyond embracing Vladimir Putin, his major foreign policy concerns during the campaign were defeating ISIS or revising the nuclear deal with Iran.

But the first real crisis of a Trump presidency is likely to come from the world's most isolated nation, North Korea. And the president-elect will soon learn that it is Chinese power and influence he will need to deal with North Korea and the threat posed by its nuclear weapons program.


The young and unpredictable leader of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, declared last weekend that the country is approaching the final stage of an intercontinental ballistic rocket launch. In response, Mr. Trump tweeted late Monday that Mr. Kim's nuclear plans "won't happen!" and, an hour later, chided China for not helping "with North Korea."

Taking advantage of divisions between the United States and China over North Korea during the last decade or more, the "Hermit Kingdom" has continued to build a nuclear arsenal that already threatens its neighbors and will pose a threat to the United States in a few years if nothing is done to stop it.


Preemption is a possible response that will occur to some advisers to the new president, just as it did when China was in a comparable position in the 1960s. Cool heads prevailed then and should now, because a war and even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula would bring grave damage to our allies, South Korea and Japan, and cause global environmental damage.

The only plausible option is diplomacy. And a new administration in the capital of the world's most powerful nation should be clear-eyed enough to pick up where the Clinton administration left off with a review of U.S. policy and exploration of renewed negotiations.

For all of North Korea's intransigence, a decade and a half has been wasted during the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Scandal and shaky political leadership now hamper prospects of "sunshine" diplomacy from South Korea. And China, the one country with real leverage over North Korea, seems more worried about economic turmoil on its borders and immigration than the north's nuclear weapons.

Three recent expert reviews of North Korean policy underline the gravity of the situation — and conclude that time is running out for a peaceful resolution to one of the world's most serious problems.

A task force of the Council on Foreign Relations reported that North Korea's accelerating nuclear and missile progress poses "a grave and expanding threat" to the region, to U.S. allies and U.S. forces, and to the U.S. homeland.

Criticizing recent policies, the report urged a dual-track approach to engage North Korea, coordinating sanctions and deterrence with China while offering incentives to end the north's isolation and rush to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal. The CFR report urged renewed efforts to bring about a unified Korean peninsula.

A Hoover Institution-Johns Hopkins report urged revival of a search for common ground among northeast Asian nations similar to the one launched during the Clinton administration by former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry.

A recent conference of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. drew similar conclusions. Leading experts agreed that a return to the so-called "six-party talks" was important, though unlikely. They concluded that without direct talks with China to deflect North Korea from its current path, a crisis is likely to develop in the near future. The U.S. and its allies must establish a "firm, but restrained" declaratory policy of consequences if North Korea were to proceed with its plans to place a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.


A formal treaty to end the 1950-1953 Korean War could serve as part of a policy framework for the incoming Trump administration if it can develop a broad-based agenda for negotiations among the leading powers in Northeast Asia. A narrow focus on North Korea's nuclear weapons program — one it clings to for legitimacy — has not been a formula for successful talks.

Unfortunately, there is no multilateral mechanism in Northeast Asia to promote peace and security. There is no mechanism to oversee implementation of agreements to get beyond the 1953 armistice. High-level meetings between North and South Korea have all but vanished. So, creating a network of nations to enable dialogue and negotiations will be a necessary first step to broader security agreements in the region.

If ever there was a time for "the art of the deal," this is it.

James E. Goodby ( was vice-chair of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks and ambassador to Finland. He is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Frederic B. Hill, a former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, later conducted war games and conferences on national security issues for the Department of State; his email is