Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

Forget Russia, Iran or even ISIS. North Korea is shaping up to be the Trump administration’s greatest foreign policy challenge and one the United States can’t afford to ignore, some experts say.

Russian cyber-attacks and Islamic terrorism have captured much of the international stage, but they do not pose an "existential threat" to the United States like North Korea does, according to those experts.

North Korea evolved into the nuclear-armed enigma it is today long before President Trump took office. Now, the reclusive, authoritarian state is testing America’s newest commander-in-chief with a round of provocative missile tests. Experts told ABC News that Trump’s administration must come up with a plan to curb North Korea’s missile and nuclear development program -- and it must do so quickly.

"I don’t think there's any doubt that this is one of the most central foreign policy challenges that the new administration will face and is facing right now as we speak," said Evans J.R. Revere, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

North Korea’s latest missile launches

North Korea fired five ballistic missiles on Monday. One crashed shortly after taking off, but the other four were detected to have flown about 620 miles and landed in the Sea of Japan. The four missiles flew different trajectories from their launch points and three of them landed within an area 200 nautical miles off the coast of Japan, an area that the Japanese government claims as its exclusive economic zone. U.S. officials described the missiles as SCUD missiles.

The launches were seen, at least in part, as a reaction by North Korea to joint U.S.-South Korea military drills that kicked off last week and have been taking place annually for about four decades.

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported Monday's missile launches were practice for a strike on U.S. military bases in Japan that are home to 54,000 U.S. military personnel.

“If the U.S. or South Korea fires even a single flame inside North Korean territory we will demolish the origin of the invasion and provocation with nuclear tipped missile,” KCNA said.

North Korean state television broadcast images and video of what it said was the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, overseeing the launch of four missiles. State media described Kim as “feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets.”

Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

Trump administration reacts

The U.S. Department of State said it "strongly condemns" Monday’s missile launches, calling the move a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. On Tuesday, the United States began setting up an anti-missile system in South Korea.

The U.S. military started delivering the Thermal High-Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) to its designated site on Tuesday. The system is designed to intercept any missile fired at South Korea from the North. The U.S. had been working with South Korea to install the system since last year’s flurry of missile tests by North Korea.

China, which maintains formal diplomatic ties with North Korea, responded quickly by saying it will take unspecified measures against a U.S. missile defense system being deployed in South Korea and warned that Washington and Seoul will bear the consequences.

During a telephone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-Ahn on Monday, Trump “emphasized that his administration is taking steps to further enhance our ability to deter and defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles” and the three leaders agreed “to demonstrate to North Korea that there are very dire consequences for its provocative and threatening actions," according to a read-out from the White House.

At the request of the United States and Japan, the U.N. Security Council is set to hold consultations on North Korea and non-proliferation Wednesday morning. But experts say the standard resolutions aren’t going to work with North Korea.

“We have to change the game, and the game is we fail to recognize that for North Korea most of their missile tests and nuclear tests have as much to do with internal politics as external,” Bruce Bennett, senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told ABC News. “You’ve got to be prepared to get involved in the internal politics.”

Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions date back decades

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its development of long-range rocket systems have been three generations in the making. And the country’s standing as a nuclear weapon-possessing state has even been etched into its constitution.

Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, who ruled from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994, dreamed of an intercontinental ballistic missile as the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons against the North during the Korean War.

The Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s ally and sponsor, began training North Korean scientists and engineers in the 1950s, giving them the “basic knowledge” to initiate a nuclear program, according to the American Security Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan public policy and research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the death of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il succeeded his father amid a dire famine that killed up to 2.5 million North Koreans. To protect the state, the new leader developed the Songun, or military-first, doctrine, in which the military received all resources first.

“In this sense, the military is not just an institution designed to perform the function of defending the country from external hostility. Instead, it provides all of the other institutions of the government with legitimacy," South Korean scholar Han S. Park wrote in a 2007 paper. “In this way, the military serves as the brain in the nervous system of the body politic.”

In July 2006, North Korea tested the Taepodong-2, its first missile that could, in theory, reach parts of the United States. The test failed. Three months later, North Korea tested its first nuclear device near the village of Punggye-ri.

North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test in September 2016.

Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

In his New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un said the country was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon.

“They can’t hit us yet as best as we can tell. But they may only be months to a few years away from being able to do so,” said Bennett, of the RAND Corporation, a California-based global policy think tank. "It’s getting pretty dangerous.”

In February 2017, a U.S. official confirmed to ABC News that North Korea had launched a solid rocket fueled KN-11 missile, described as an intermediate range missile than can travel 1,400 nautical miles. It was the first land-based test of a missile designed to be launched from a submarine.

Although the test didn’t feature the ICBM, the launch indicated North Korea is making progress in developing solid rocket fuel technology, a more stable propellant than the liquid rocket fuel Pyongyang has used in its other medium and long-range missiles. This means North Korea would need less time to prepare, making it difficult for U.S. satellites to track potential launches.

"They have demonstrated a level of sophistication regarding their ability to launch nuclear-capable missiles," Revere told ABC News. "All of the systems they have launched in recent weeks are nuclear cable."

Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

How previous U.S. presidents have handled North Korea

President Bill Clinton tried negotiating a deal with North Korea that would prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. In 1994, the United States and North Korea announced the Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear reactors and associated facilities and accept inspections of all of its declared nuclear facilities in exchange for diplomatic and economic concessions from Washington.

President George W. Bush took a different approach to North Korea policy when he took office, unwilling to engage with the regime and, thus, the Agreed Framework fell apart. In late 2002, North Korea was caught cheating on the 1994 agreement, and subsequently, Bush announced the deployment of anti-missile interceptors in Alaska and California, some of the nearest parts of North America to North Korea.

The Bush administration renewed nuclear talks with North Korea in 2003. But North Korea forged ahead with its nuclear research because, unlike with the Agreed Framework, it did not have to temporarily halt its nuclear weapons while a final agreement was negotiated.

In 2005, North Korea agreed in principle to abandon its nuclear weapons program. A year later, it tested its first nuclear weapon.

Bush removed North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in late 2008 and in return received nothing after the six-party talks -- a series of negotiations featuring China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. for the purpose of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program -- fell apart shortly afterward.

President Barack Obama said his administration was willing to revive round-table talks with North Korea if it was ready to relinquish its nuclear weapons. But this took a backseat to Obama’s negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran as well as the international war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Why N. Korea may be Trump's greatest foreign policy challenge

How will Trump approach North Korea policy?

Trump didn’t say much about North Korea during the 2016 presidential election. On the campaign trail last year, the Republican candidate told Reuters in an interview that he “would have no problem speaking” to Kim Jong Un and that he would also “put a lot of pressure on China,” which maintains formal diplomatic ties with North Korea.

Ahead of his inauguration, president-elect Trump responded bluntly to North Korea’s claims that it was in the final stages of developing a missile capable of reaching parts of the United States. “It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted.

A month later, North Korea successfully launched its first missile test of 2017.

“Trump said it won’t happen, but he doesn’t even have a play yet for making it not happen,” Bennett said. “The North Koreans literally taunted him.”

North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017

So, what can Trump do?

Bennett of the RAND Corporation said ultimately perhaps not much, because North Korea has made it very clear it won't give up its nuclear weapons. But he said the Trump administration should come up with "a package" of solutions to carefully curb North Korea's nuclear capabilities without causing Pyongyang to launch an attack on nearby countries.

For instance, the U.S. could threaten to drop leaflets on North Korean nuclear facilities advertising for defectors. And if Pyongyang continues launching missiles, the U.S. military may have to start intercepting them, Bennett said.

Experts told ABC News that the Trump administration is currently researching solutions and policy approaches to North Korea. Trump is a businessman at heart who doesn't like to lose, the experts note, so the U.S. president will probably lean toward whichever approach has the highest probability of success.

“The existential threat is not so much it would destroy the entire U.S. anymore, but that it would cause enough damage in the United States. That would really be unacceptable for any president to allow to happen,” Bennett said. “North Korea is moving in that direction.”

Revere, of the Brookings Institution, argued the United States and its partners should take a more concerted course of action by implementing a massive, intense program of immediate and overwhelming sanctions that threaten the one thing North Korea values more than its nuclear weapons -- the stability and continuity of its regime.

"It would shake the foundation of the regime and do so in such a way that it would cause the North Korean leadership to be deeply concerned that they were putting at risk the continuity of their regime by continuing down this path of nuclear development," Revere said. "And I'm convinced that in response to that, the North Korean leadership would make the right decision."

And if that doesn't work, then the United States and its allies may have to consider the last resort.

"I'm hoping that would not be necessary. I'm hoping North Korea would look at the logic of coming back to de-nuclearization talks," Revere said. "But if they don't, it may be regime change is the only mechanism left."

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