While President Donald Trump on Wednesday vowed tougher sanctions against nuclear-armed North Korea, some believe there's a risk that Kim Jong Un's totalitarian regime may feel threatened enough to strike with dangerous action that could have far-reaching consequences.
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump wrote that he spoke to China's President, Xi Jinping, about the North's actions and said, "Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today." Trump is hoping China — North Korea's longtime ally and largest trading partner — will apply enough pressure on Pyongyang to get them to abandon the country's missile and nuclear weapons development.
Trump's pledge to impose the additional sanctions followed Tuesday's intercontinental ballistic missile test-firing by Pyongyang that arms control expert David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists said showed the North Koreans are capable of striking all of the United States. North Korea's state media outlet KCNA said Wednesday its latest ballistic missile test was a Hwasong-15 ICBM capable of carrying a "super-large heavy warhead," and the secretive regime added that it had completed development of its "state nuclear force."
"We have to be careful on these sanctions," said retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who served as an advisor to South Korea's military while on active duty and is now a defense expert at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank. "We don't want to push them too far to where it's like we did with Japan in World War II with the embargo we placed on them."
The retired colonel said the events leading up to then Imperial Japan attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941 included the U.S. imposing an economic embargo on Japan, including a ban on oil and gasoline exports. He said the Japanese government at the time "viewed it as an existential threat, since they can't live without oil" so they attacked in an attempt to forestall it.
"So we don't want to push the North Koreans too far," Davis said. "We want to keep pressure on them but not lethal pressure because that will just cause them to strike. Let's not just give in to it but continue to work with consistent diplomatic pressure over many years if necessary. Maybe someday we can get to a denuclearized peninsula."
Experts say another strategy that might work is to convince the North Koreans that Trump is serious about taking military action. Some suggest this would be akin to the "madman" with the bomb signaling that Richard Nixon used during the Vietnam War.
"There's an in-between measure that would be a high degree of military pressure," said Denny Roy, an Asia Pacific security expert and senior fellow at the East-West Center, a think tank in Honolulu. "That is putting it in the minds of the North Korean government that the United States is seriously contemplating a military attack, even if we don't actually intend to do so."
In other words, Roy asserts that such military pressure from Washington would force North Korea to make the decision of whether it wants to have the nuclear capability or to survive. Others don't see the North's leader giving up nuclear weapons anytime soon, since the regime is well aware of what happened with Libya's Moammar Gaddafi when he gave up his nuclear weapons programs after facing Western pressure.
Still, Roy concedes that a pre-emptive U.S. military strike is probably not realistic due to "collateral damage to South Korea."
Even so, South Korean military leaders have expressed concern that Trump might launch a strike on the North without first consulting Seoul's government.