President Donald Trump famously enforced the “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons that President Barack Obama would not. Now he faces his own challenge, as North Korea has crossed all of his own “red lines.”
Early last month, in response to reports that North Korea had miniaturized a nuclear warhead, Trump declared: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few days later, he tweeted that “military solutions” were “locked and loaded.” He made several similar threats until North Korea appeared to back away from its threat to launch missiles at Guam.
In the past several days, North Korea has returned to belligerent mode, firing a medium-range ICBM over Japan, and conducting a sixth nuclear test this weekend, claiming the latter was a warhead-capable hydrogen bomb.
There is no way to interpret these actions except as direct threats to the United States and to America’s allies. The question is what Trump will do about it. Last month, then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the American Prospect: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
It is therefore likely that any military response to North Korea would not only have to be a complete surprise, but would also have to involve a technological breakthrough unanticipated by the North Korean regime, its Chinese sponsors, and much of the U.S. government besides.
It would not be the first time, but time may be running out.