Trumplomacy’s Test: The Launch of Hwasong-14

“We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism,” President Donald Trump declared in a campaign speech in April 2016, promising to put ‘America First.’ ‘Economic nationalism’ and ‘national security’ would be the pillars upon which Trump’s diplomacy was built.

With North Korea’s first successful test of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that would be able to hit the U.S., albeit for the moment only Alaska, the bold rhetoric of ‘Trumplomacy’ may be put to its most critical test.

Meanwhile, on July 4, 2017, Independence Day, North Korea launched the Hwasong-14 ICBM, which seemed to be a direct challenge to Trump’s Twitter arrogance in January, where he claimed that a North Korean ICBM that could reach the USA simply ‘won’t happen.’ North Korea’s news agency, KPNA, asserted an apogee of 2802 kilometres and a flight time of 39 minutes, which was later confirmed in approximate statements from the governments of Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.A. Extrapolating from these figures, scientists estimate a conservative maximum range of 6700 kilometres, making it the first North Korean nuclear warhead with the capability of reaching the American mainland.

Whilst Trump’s administration has rejected Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience,’ it is unclear whether Trump has a clear strategy to replace it. Instead, policy U-turns and strong, but poorly-considered rhetoric have led to incoherence.

In response to the missile launch, President Trump promised ‘very severe things’ for North Korea, which has led to worrying speculation that Trump may be threatening war against the Korean Peninsula, something previously declared a ‘very real risk.’ Nevertheless, despite these crude threats, the Trump administration would prefer a peaceful resolution. So far, the approach has been remarkably similar to the ‘strategic patience’ policy the Trump administration claimed was over.

Nonetheless, political goals still involve attempting to assemble international support to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Indeed, at the G20 summit held on 7th-8th July, the United States reached an agreement with South Korea and Japan to push for greater UN sanctions.

However, Trump’s diplomatic skills will need to be honed considerably if the administration is to have any chance of success in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Whilst China’s support is necessary to ensure UN sanctions are enforced, relations between the U.S. and China have cooled. The U.S. now plans to go ahead with a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which was originally signed by the Obama administration, but apparently, it was temporarily shelved in an attempt to improve US-China relations. Simultaneously, new sanctions on China’s Bank of Dandong, which the U.S. has accused of having links to North Korea, were announced. Meanwhile, Sino-Russia relations have been warming, with Beijing and Moscow issuing a joint statement after the Hwasong-14 launch calling for an end to North Korea’s nuclear testing program, as well as joint US-South Korea military exercises.

Relations with regional allies may also be on shaky ground. Trump rattled South Korea with his complaint that they should be paying for the THAAD system, which was deployed in South Korea to reduce the threat from North Korea’s missiles, and with his declared intention to renegotiate the US-South Korea free trade pact, a manifestation of his ‘economic nationalism.’ Furthermore, on April 30th, 2017, General Herbert Raymond “H. R.” McMaster, on Fox News, responded to questions about the potential risk to the lives of millions of South Koreans should a war with North Korea occur. He said, honestly, perhaps, but not reassuringly, ‘What the president has first and foremost on his mind is to protect the American people.’ As such, although South Korea is a traditional partner of the United States’, they have much at stake and officials have their own opinions on how best to deal with their North Korean neighbours. For example, Moon Jae-in won the presidency based on a desire to take a more conciliatory approach than his predecessors.

With that said, a diplomatic solution may be noble to seek out, but President Trump’s rash tweeting and bellicose attitude to foreign affairs may be limiting his negotiating power. While the United States’ policy towards North Korea has been unsuccessful for decades, and no strategy stands out as a particularly ‘good’ option, Trump should still take care that his loose tongue and lack of tact don’t serve to make a bad situation worse.