Donald Trump's First Major Test as President

March 8th 2017

Mike Rothschild

North Korea is serving President Donald Trump his first major test as commander in chief, according to experts quoted by ABC, Reuters, and CNN.

Trump has a history of off-the-cuff remarks about North Korea and nuclear weapons.

However, the influential foreign policy think tank the Brookings Institution says Trump has faced the delicate situation with a "sober and focused" stance.

"Trump [...] has clearly recognized the risks of a severe, quite possibly profound crisis on the Korean Peninsula," two Brookings scholars wrote in an editorial. "He has adjusted his thinking in a quiet, careful fashion that has included repeated consultations with the intelligence community," including three National Security Council meetings, and the dispatching of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Seoul.

Beyond that, Trump has moved forward with the United States' delivery and installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interception system in South Korea. While the THAAD deal was finalized by the Obama administration, Trump had previously claimed South Korea needs to pay the U.S. more for defense, and that it should develop its own nuclear weapons to counter the North Korean threat. 

"For those wondering whether the Trump White House is capable of careful deliberation over complex, high-risk security issues, the Korean Peninsula provides a welcome example," the Brookings authors write.

But even with a more coherent approach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime, the U.S. has few palatable options for dealing with Kim's burgeoning nuclear program and missile technology. 

On Monday, the matter became even more urgent as North Korea test fired four extended range SCUD missiles into the Sea of Japan. It's the second missile test the North has conducted in the few months Trump has been in office, and demonstrates the desire to hit multiple targets on short notice — including U.S. bases in Japan. The Kim regime also continues to threaten to test a long range nuclear missile capable of hitting the United States, though it's not clear if such a missile exists.

Trump has called upon China to strengthen its diplomatic stance in its role as North Korea's economic benefactor, but the two countries are already tangled in a dispute over Kim Jong Un likely ordering the assassination of his older brother, who was under Chinese protection. Making the situation even more complex is that the installation of the THAAD system has infuriated China, who sees it as an American provocation.

Even so, the Brookings experts scholars anticipate that the U.S. will be under enormous pressure to shoot down another missile test, to say nothing of what the administration would be faced with should there be indications of a coming North Korean nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the United States. 

"President Trump could face an early decision on whether to shoot down or otherwise disable a North Korean long-range missile, very possibly triggering an even larger military crisis on the peninsula," the Brookings Institute editorial states. 

As Business Insider writes, such a first strike against Kim's missile sites "wouldn't be pretty. Some number of civilians in South Korea, possibly Japan, and U.S. forces stationed in the Pacific would be likely to die in the undertaking no matter how smoothly things went."

According to their analysis, such a conflict could immediately take on a life of its own, with air strikes leading to either Korea invading each other, massive bombardment of Seoul, cyber attacks against the U.S. and possibly even the death of Kim Jong Un. As the conservative National Interest notes, the U.S. would also need to bring aid and stability to the highly militarized nation (something its failed at in past conflicts). 

As if to underscore the complexity of the situation, Beijing put aside its anger over THAAD to propose that North Korea halt its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea suspending the joint military exercises the two nations are conduction. Both immediately rejected the proposal.