Donald Trump

With ICBM Test, North Korea Again Ignores Trump's Threat of ‘Fire and Fury'

Kim Jong Un has repeatedly ignored President Donald Trump's harshly worded warnings and forged on with his nuclear missile program

In August, President Donald Trump promised to bring North Korea "fire and fury" if the nation continued to threaten the United States.

But three months later, North Korea demonstrated with a missile it fired higher and longer than ever that it can likely bring fire and fury of its own to any part of the United States.

Tuesday's missile test was the latest provocation from Kim Jong Un, who has repeatedly ignored Trump's harshly worded warnings and forged on with his nuclear missile program. Trump's rhetoric has clearly not worked as a deterrent, experts say, and has pushed his goal of denuclearizing North Korea even further out of his reach.

"This missile test should throw that into sharp relief for the president: Your approach isn't working, they're going to keep doing this and it would be up to him to find a different way," said Eric Gomez, a missile defense and East Asian policy expert at the Cato Institute. 

The intercontinental ballistic missile soared higher than any previous test, about 2,800 miles above the ground, according to South Korea's military — roughly 10 times the altitude of the space station. Hours after the test, North Korea’s state media claimed it was a new type of missile with a "super-large heavy warhead" capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Some nuclear proliferation experts are taking that claim seriously. A different trajectory would give the missile a range of about 13,000 km, according to an estimate from the Union of Concerned Scientists. That puts every part of the U.S. mainland in reach, Gomez said, even if the missile were carrying a nuclear warhead.

"We will take care of it," Trump said Tuesday after the test. "It is a situation that we will handle."

But Trump has promised to react in the past, and it hasn't stopped Kim from advancing his missile technologies. That's included four tests since the "fire and fury" comment on Aug. 8, when North Korea was reported to have developed a nuclear weapon small enough to fit atop a missile.

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," the president said at the time. "They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."

Two days later, Trump took to social media to let North Korea know that the U.S. military was "locked and loaded" in case North Korea were to act "unwisely."

Trump has also touted sanctions that the United Nations placed on North Korea at the United States' urging; he tweeted that more were likely to come Wednesday, but that did not come to pass. Trump's put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that comes with more U.S. sanctions. And he's continued to threaten Kim, who he began calling "Rocket Man" in September.

"Rocket man is on a suicide mission," the president said at the United Nations that month. "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."

The insults haven't only come from Trump. After the U.N. speech, Kim called him a "frightened dog" and "a mentally deranged U.S. dotard."

But Trump's language puts America's standing in the world at risk if it won't follow through, and so far Trump hasn't, according to Richard K. Betts, director of the International Security Policy program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

"Trump's bellicose rhetoric risks damaging U.S. credibility, since he should not follow through on threats to use force against North Korean provocations that fall short of actually attacking us or South Korea," Betts said in an email.

The White House didn't respond to requests for comment on this story.

While the implications of war with North Korea may now include a nuclear strike on the U.S., they've always included the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people dying in South Korea, where millions live within range of the heavily armed border with the North. That has complicated any strategy to deal with Kim and his predecessors.

On Wednesday, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, "We have never sought war with North Korea, and still today we do not seek it. If war does come, it will be because of continued acts of aggression like we witnessed yesterday."

Trump’s threats didn't come with a diplomatic strategy that could have defused tensions, said the experts who spoke to NBC. They also make it less likely for the regime to come back to the negotiating table down the line.

"It helps North Korea perpetuate the perception that there’s an outside threat that they can use domestically and internally to help continue to develop their nuclear weapons," said Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It gives them an excuse to continue with their nuclear weapons."

If it doesn't change course, North Korea will likely continue to face more and more sanctions, Collins said, as "the countries in the region — South Korea, Japan, the U.S. — will continue to try and contain and manage the situation [to] show that there are consequences to North Korea’s actions."

But consistently ratcheting up sanctions as part of Trump's "maximum pressure" strategy brings problems of its own. Gomez noted that it's become harder for the U.S. to lift sanctions in the event that North Korea begins negotiating.

"Would it be difficult for us to reward that behavior by removing those sanctions?" he said, adding that there isn't much focus on what the U.S. would do to reward North Korea if it were cooperative.

Gomez suggested that China — which Trump has courted as an ally in deterring North Korea from further developing nuclear weapons — could play good cop to the United States' bad cop, as it's able to offer rewards for opening dialogue that the U.S. can't.

But he added that China has different goals from the U.S., and would not likely provide the kind of solution that the U.S. wants to see.

And Trump noted in a tweet on Thursday that an envoy China sent to North Korea "seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man."

All the likely solutions the experts envisioned will come short of denuclearization. They range from a moratorium on further tests to relying on missile defense.

Trump's ideal solution of denuclearizing North Korea is simply not realistic, said Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. And Trump's recent decision to again designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism further dimmed prospects for negotiations.

"The best possible outcome for the United States at this late stage of the North Korean proliferation crisis would be some type of moratorium on additional ICBM tests," Taliaferro said. "Such a negotiated settlement is unlikely."

The president could instead decide to rely on deterrence and countermeasures to prevent the U.S. from entering a devastating war, Gomez said, anticipating that U.S. missile defense will be strengthened so that Trump "can stay ahead of the problem and not feel like we have to go to war." 

Betts also sees deterrence as the only solution for North Korea, just as it was against the Soviet Union.

"This is not a situation where we can have confidence, but one that may be handled adequately," Betts said. "Welcome to a world more dangerous than optimists expected after the Cold War."

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