The North Korea crisis needs a grown-up -- Trump is making it worse

Story highlights

  • Jonathan Cristol: the US has greeted North Korea's missile tests with the typical disjointed reaction we have come to expect from the Trump administration.
  • North Korean actions requires a multifaceted, nuanced, coordinated, and thoughtful response, Cristol writes

Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Early Wednesday morning North Korea launched a Hwasong-12 missile which traveled 1,678 miles over the Japanese island of Hokkaido and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

This missile launch was not a test -- it was a demonstration. Kim Jong Un wanted to show the world his confidence that the missile could make it over Japan without failing over Japanese territory, though the missile's trajectory appears to have been plotted to minimize risk to Japanese civilians.
The immediate, obvious response to an accidental strike on Japan would be to strike back at the launch site. This would be easy if launched from an area without a large civilian population.
    But the fact that this missile was launched from from the capital city of Pyongyang shows that Kim is confident he would not suffer a preemptive or retaliatory strike.
    This was a dangerous escalation from North Korea's previous missile tests, which have followed steep trajectories to avoid flying over Japan, and should be met with a serious response. But since the 2016 US election, the US has greeted North Korea's missile tests with the typical disjointed reaction we have come to expect from the Trump administration.
    After Kim's recent threats against the US territory of Guam, Trump responded that if North Korea were to follow through, it would be met with "fire and fury." This was intended to intimidate Kim, but instead it seems to have confirmed Kim's likely assumption that Trump is a paper tiger.
    After the latest missile launch, President Trump's 140-character response was just as confusing: "The US has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!"
    It is not at all clear what extortion payments he was talking about, though the tweet is in keeping with Trump's view that the US, the most powerful country on Earth, is constantly being taken advantage of.
    The later part of his tweet seemed to contradict both Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said, "We're never out of diplomatic solutions," and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has supported talks with Pyongyang while simultaneously gutting his own department's capability to conduct them.
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    The escalation of North Korean threats may lead some to fear that war on the Korean peninsula is imminent, and President Trump's tweets certainly don't detract from that perception.
    But war in East Asia remains an unlikely outcome. Because Trump's threats are empty, and so are Kim's.
    North Korea will never strike Guam (or the US mainland) with a nuclear missile because they value their own survival and a nuclear strike by Pyongyang would result in the destruction of North Korea.
    Mutual deterrence is more powerful than either leader's desire to win the game of chicken they're playing.
    However, non-nuclear escalation is always a threat and the US should show Pyongyang that while it may be able to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, it will not tolerate risky behavior and escalation towards the US or its allies.
    The US and South Korea attempted to demonstrate that by showing their ability to intercept intermediate-range ballistic missiles like the Hwangsong-12 and their bunker-busting precision bombing capability.
    That is unlikely to persuade Kim to stop testing, and he will almost certainly develop the capability to strike the US with a nuclear warhead. We will not like it, but we will live with it, just as we have lived with Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons pointed at the US.
    An appropriate response to North Korean testing would show that escalation will not be tolerated, a preventive strike is not imminent and that we are always open to talks (talking does not equal concessions; talking equals talking).
    Trump said that "all options are on the table," and he was right to say so.
    But provocative, escalatory, and dangerous North Korean actions requires a multifaceted, nuanced, coordinated, and thoughtful response. And unfortunately those qualities haven't exactly been hallmarks of the Trump administration.