A North Korean Hwasong-14 ballistic missile is launched during a test on July 4, 2017. According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency the new missile is capable of hitting the United States with nuclear warheads. The launch tested the functions of the propulsion stages and the warhead’s ability to endure intense heat and vibration as it reentered earth’s atmosphere. Korea Central News Agency photo.
The increasingly bellicose rhetoric of President Donald Trump is being heard loud and clear in North Korea, a panel of experts from the RAND Corporation told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “The US has lost a great deal of its credibility with Pyongyang,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher with RAND. “The rhetoric by the US White House has been in part helping to re-establish that credibility.”
The problem, Bennett said, is that over the years Pyongyang has “gone through multiple US red lines” in its nuclear program development without serious consequences from Washington. Last week, Trump warned that continued provocations from Pyongyang would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” While admitting that the President’s choice of words was “unprecedented,” Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist at RAND, told reporters that given the current escalation in tensions with North Korea, Trump’s rhetoric “doesn’t seem so inappropriate.”
Powerful language “underscores” the seriousness with which the US is taking the situation, Bennett said, and communicates to Pyongyang—and to North Korea’s sole ally China—in a way that is “useful.” Scobell said that “rhetoric is very important” in standing up to authoritarian regimes like that of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un, and that it could help bring North Korea back into negotiations over its nuclear program.
Such negotiations would need to start from limited expectations where the US is concerned. “They have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons” altogether, Bennett warned. But he said that “asking North Korea to give up something like five or maybe even 10 nuclear weapons” to the International Atomic Energy Agency could be a realistic goal. Then Pyongyang would have international validation of its status as a nuclear power, and the US and its allies would “gain tremendous intelligence information” from IAEA’s assessment of North Korean capabilities.
In terms of North Korean technical progress, “the number of systems they have under development and the pace at which they are trying to advance them” is the most alarming signal for J.D. Williams, senior defense policy researcher at RAND. He is specifically looking for Pyongyang to demonstrate a “solid fuel ICBM.” Such a missile would mark “a significant improvement” over the ICBM North Korea has already tested because it would be “safer and more stable.” Solid fuel also “enhances the mobility” of an ICBM system, Williams said. “They are able to move and hide” those missile systems.
The experts were wary of US military options should North Korea not return to negotiations. “Attacks on North Korea are probably not a viable option,” Bennett warned. “There’s no such thing as a surgical strike against the North Korean nuclear capabilities.” In saying so, he echoed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who told Congress in June that any conflict on the Korean peninsula would produce “a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we have seen since 1953.”
Instead of war, Bennett said the US should press ahead with harsh sanctions, which are “starting to have important effects on the regime.” The ultimate hope, Bennett said, is that the sanctions could inflict enough pain on Pyongyang to succeed in “convincing [Kim] that the cost of his actions are greater than the benefits he hopes to obtain.”
The recommendations from RAND were in concert with remarks offered by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres at a Wednesday press conference. “The solution to this crisis must be political,” Guterres said. “The potential consequences of military action are too horrific to even contemplate.” He said UN Resolution 2371, which recently tightened sanctions on North Korea, “sends an unambiguous message regarding the peace and security obligations” expected of Pyongyang and provides “an opportunity for diplomatic engagement and renewed dialogue to solve this crisis.”