North Korea the Defining Issue of the Trump Presidency

Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA

Editor’s Note: Amidst harsh rhetoric from both U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean regime, tensions are currently extremely elevated. After North Korea’s missile test at the end of July, The Cipher Brief revisits its conversation with Michael Morell on Kim Jong-un’s actions and intent.

 American, South Korean and Japanese jets marked the skies over East Asia Sunday morning, as the U.S. and its allies sought to demonstrate resolve in the face of yet another North Korean missile test. 

The North’s latest test on Friday evening reportedly flew 2,300 miles high and 621 miles out, which according to experts, indicates that Pyongyang can now reach much of the continental United States – including as far inland as Chicago. While disagreement remains regarding whether that distance could be maintained with a heavier payload, the implications are serious. The Cipher Brief’s Callie Wang spoke with Former Acting Director of the CIA, Michael Morell, about Kim Jong-Un’s intentions and message for the United States.

The Cipher Brief: Friday’s missile launch appeared to demonstrate North Korea is capable of reaching U.S. shores – but capability is not the same as intent to use. What message is North Korea sending to the United States? And, considering U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated statements that China can “solve” this problem, is Pyongyang also trying to send a message to China as well?

Michael Morell: Yes, this is the first North Korean missile test of any kind that demonstrated the capability of reaching the homeland — possibly as far east as Chicago.  The North has now demonstrated two of the four things they need to put the homeland at risk — a workable nuclear device and a missile that can travel the distance.  They still have not demonstrated the other two things — the ability to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile and the ability of the warhead and the missile to actually work together as designed, particularly under the stress, pressure, and heat of the launch of the missile and the reentry of the warhead.  It is very important to note that just because the North has not demonstrated these last two capabilities does not mean that they don’t have them.  That would be both a wrong — and a possibly very dangerous — assumption.

The message that Kim is trying to send the U.S. is, at minimum, that North Korea has a deterrent to any U.S. effort to overthrow him and his regime. Essentially Kim is saying, “if you attack me, I will be able to bring about extraordinary death and destruction on you, so don’t attack me.”

It is also possible that Kim’s message goes beyond deterrence — that Kim wants to use his strategic weapons capability to subtly or not so subtly extort changes in policy and behavior from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, essentially saying, “I’m a nuclear weapons power, so now deal with me like you understand that.”  I think you can see that the latter intent is much more dangerous than the former.

TCB: On Saturday, President Trump tweeted the following: “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet…they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!” You’ve previously written for TCB that the U.S. must recognize that China is on “horns of a dilemma” – it does not like North Korea’s behavior but fears a destabilized Korean peninsula on its borders. We talk a lot about what the U.S. does next, but what does China do next?

Morell: I find it very interesting that there is an unstated assumption in what almost everyone, including the President, says when they discuss the China/North Korea issue — that China can solve this problem if it wants. Yes, China has been unwilling to try to use its economic relationship with the North to change Kim’s behavior for any number of reasons, but I really doubt that China would be effective in changing North Korean behavior even if it tried. Why?  Because Kim sees his strategic weapons program as the key to his political and personal survival.  He is not going to give it up even under intense pressure from China.

TCB: On Saturday, the South Korean President announced some serious changes in Seoul’s security stance. President Moon spoke of “a fundamental change in the security structure in Northeast Asia,” instructed the government to move forward with the installation of THAAD and requested to work with the U.S. to build up missile capabilities. Japan is interested in doing the same, but all of this will unsettle China as well as defend against the North. Are we looking at a serious escalation (or even an arms race) in East Asia? If so, what are the implications of that?

Morell: What we are looking at, with certainty, are significant steps by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan to protect themselves — largely with sophisticated missile defense.  Expect to see that in South Korea, Japan, Alaska, Hawaii, and California. And, yes, China won’t like it because they will see this as designed to protect against Chinese missiles.  But, we are just going to have to carefully explain ourselves to Beijing.  If they continue to protest, we just have to say, “too bad.”

TCB: How do CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s comments in late July about North Korean regime change play into this, if at all? Do his comments give us a window into how President Trump is thinking about the North Korean problem?

Morell: I don’t see regime change as a legitimate policy option.  I think that the probability that the U.S. could be overthrow Kim and his regime and replace it with one much more inclined to deal with the U.S. is extraordinarily low. And, even if we did, how could we be certain that what would follow would be better?  It might even be worse.  How could we be certain that we would not create the same kind of instability that we created in Iraq and Libya?  Imagine an Iraq or a Libya today with loose nuclear weapons. What would come the day after Kim falls?

I think that the President is going to face three policy options — (1) diplomacy, (2) acceptance, along with containment and deterrence, and (3) military action to significantly degrade the North’s strategic weapons capabilities.

We have tried diplomacy for 25 years without success. The President is right when he says diplomacy has failed. But, still, we owe it to ourselves and to our allies to try at least one more time.  But, in so doing, we have to be careful that we do not fall into the historical trap whereby we make concessions while North Korea does not.

I think eventually we will get to a choice between the extremes of military action and acceptance.  This will be the most important decision the President will make during his time in office.  North Korea will be the defining issue of this presidency.  I just hope that the decision is made with the best intelligence, with rigorous discussion and debate, and with great care — because both ends of the policy spectrum carry huge risks.  I have my own views on what the right thing to do is, which we have discussed on the pages of Cipher Brief before, but it is only the president’s view that ultimately matters.

TCB: You’ve written previously that any negotiations with North Korea cannot be “rushed to meet some artificial political timeline.” Is Kim trying to shape the timeline himself with these missile launches?

Morell: I said that in the context of Kim being willing to seriously negotiate, which I don’t believe is possible.  What Kim wants is to negotiate, but not give anything up, after he is able to convince us that he can threaten the homeland with nuclear weapons.  He wants to negotiate from a position of strength. And, he is rushing in that direction. This is what is creating the sense of urgency here at home, and it is one of the reasons why diplomacy will ultimately fail.

TCB: Anything else we should be thinking about?

Morell: Yes, the extraordinarily important role that the Intelligence Community will play in helping the President get this policy decision right.  There are many questions to answer.  What are the North’s weapons capabilities today?  If we attack them tomorrow, can they detonate a nuclear weapon over Denver?  If so, that would give us pause.  If not, how much time do we have?  And, what are Kim’s intentions?  We could much more easily live with a Kim who just wants to deter us than a Kim who wants to extort us.  And, even if his intention is just deference today, might that change down the road?

I start nearly every presentation on national security by making a key point — that intelligence has never been more important than it is today.  I go on to say that that key point flows from two others — that the number of national security threats and challenges facing our country has never been greater and that many of those issues are first and foremost intelligence issues — that is, a president cannot understand those issues, cannot make policy on them, and cannot implement that policy without first rate intelligence.  North Korea is the poster child here.

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The Author is Michael J. Morell

Michael Morell, the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of our nation's leading national security professionals, with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.  He has been at the center of our nation's fight against terrorism, its work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its efforts to respond to trends that are altering the international landscape—including the Arab Spring, the... Read More

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