Expert Commentary

Don’t Double-Dare Kim

Dennis Wilder
Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs

In the wake of President Donald Trump saying threats to the United States from North Korea would be met with “fire and fury,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued Pyongyang a warning — and a call for de-escalation.

“The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” Mattis said on Wednesday, adding that the regime’s “actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

The Cipher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger spoke with Dennis Wilder, who served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs during President George W. Bush’s second term, about North Korea’s capabilities, the fiery words of warning exchanged between President Donald Trump and Pyongyang, and how the president should leverage his defense secretary’s strong statement.

The Cipher Brief: I wanted to start with the DIA assessment — what would this conclusion that North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles mean?

Dennis Wilder: I think people have felt that on the miniaturization side, while we don’t have the exact proof of it, I think everybody thinks that the North is far enough along on miniaturization that it is capable of putting a warhead on a ballistic missile. Now, this does not mean they have small warheads. They don’t have tactical nuclear weapons, for example. That’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking miniaturization. When people say miniaturization, what you’re talking about is being able to actually put one in a warhead on one of the existing missiles, of the MRBM (medium-range ballistic missile), IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missile) variety. So I think that is not a new assessment. That’s been sort of the assessment for a year or so.

The new thing here is actually this very high number of warheads that is being talked about. That’s new. And that raises proliferation concerns, that raises a lot of different issues. If indeed people now think he has up to 60, that gives him other options that we’re not even really thinking about in this crisis — the export of fissile material and even potentially, god help us, a warhead. That may now come into people’s thinking about this.

TCB: How would you assess President Donald Trump’s statement on Tuesday?

Wilder: In terms of what Trump did, and then what Mattis has done today — and I think Mattis’ statement is hugely important — but what Trump did yesterday, I think he was reacting to these reports that he had apparently read, that I can’t confirm, that the North was loading these anti-ship missiles onto some of their patrol craft. Now, this brings back the whole question of would the North Korean leader take a provocative action? For example, like the Cheonan incident [the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, allegedly by the North Koreans] or the artillery shelling he did of South Korean islands or an incident on the DMZ. I think this is what Trump is reacting to, is a concern that the North Korean leader may be about ready to do some sort of lashing out at the South Korean side. And maybe the South Koreans, when they saw those patrol boats, were worried about that.

I think what the president was trying to do was say, that’s off the table. Don’t even think about it. But he kind of—as he does—he went too far. I think what’s happened today is Mattis is pulling that back in. You’ll notice that the president’s message was interpreted as preemptive, that we would take preemptive steps. Mattis’ statement, if you look at it, is very clear, we will react to North Korean action. So I think it’s this concern that the North could be planning something against the South Koreans at this point to make this even more of a crisis.

Of course, their calculation would be that if they were to do something against the South Koreans that the South Koreans are the weak link in all of this right now, that President Moon Jae-in is eager for some sort of dialogue. The fear in South Korea may be that Kim Jung-un wants to create a crisis moment. And what Mattis and the administration are trying to do is signal to the North, don’t even think about it. That’s my interpretation of what’s gone on in the last two days.

TCB: Do you think Mattis’ statement shifts the messaging enough from the administration? Is there a concern about taking Trump at face value?

Wilder: Here’s the concern — can Trump let the Mattis statement be the position of the administration? If I were in a position to advise, and I would guess that Chief of Staff John Kelly is trying to do this, is say, let the Mattis statement speak for you now, Mr. President. Don’t go out there and do more on this topic. But one of the things we’ll all have to watch for in the next 24-48 hours is, what does the president now do? Does he quiet down? Or does he feel he needs to continue to be out there talking about this?

TCB: What’s your biggest worry at the moment and what other elements are you watching for in the short-term, beyond Trump’s response?

Wilder: Certainly, can the administration put the president’s remarks, shall we say, in perspective, so that it doesn’t trigger Kim. That’s what Mattis is trying to get away from, a worry that with this guy if you double dare him, he’ll take the bait. So you’ve got to be careful of that, that’s what you’ve got to watch for.

The second thing that’s really important here is a lot of what the U.S. is doing right now, to say this has reached a crisis point to get the Chinese to put the pressure on the North. How the Chinese behave toward the North is incredibly important at this moment. The Chinese, I think, still have sufficient influence that they could use their threats of economic consequences for the North in a way outside of the United Nations sanctions. I’m talking about unilateral actions they can take on their border. The UN sanctions are not sufficient.

What is needed here is Chinese threats of oil cut off, or trade cut off, or whatever along that border, to get Kim to kind of pull back. Not necessarily to even come to the table. I think the Chinese goal at this point would be to get them to pause. Because they can’t get us to a freeze-for-freeze right now, we haven’t shown an interest in that concept — a freeze of our military exercises for a freeze of his nuclear and missile testing. But maybe the Chinese can put sufficient pressure on him, which is why I think they went along with these new UN sanctions. They’re trying to put a little pressure on him to pull back a bit. That’s one to watch.

TCB: Are there any policy suggestions or different ways of thinking about this that you wanted to offer up?

Wilder: The key thing now is President Trump has got to realize that Kim Jung-un is a man who can be provoked by words, and therefore, be careful with what you put out there. There is danger that he can be provoked into steps. And, remember that Kim was behind the sinking of the Cheonan. We know the South Koreans have had quite good public statements on this, we know that Kim himself was involved in the decision to sink the South Korean warship. This is a guy who will take those kinds of actions to demonstrate his toughness. You want to think hard about — again, I use a kid’s “I double dare” you sort of language, “I triple dare you,” you know, all that stuff. I just don’t think that’s mature foreign policy.

The Author is Dennis Wilder

Dennis Wilder served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs during President George W. Bush's second term.  He is currently Professor of the practice in the Asian Studies Program of the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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