McMaster, himself a military historian, said on ABC television’s This Week that while the president had not ruled out any option, it was time for the US “to take action, short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst” in dealing with “this unpredictable regime.”
Translation: Pre-emptive strikes are off the table, at least for now.
The fact that Kim did not conduct a nuclear test over the weekend, timed to honor the anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, the founder of the country and its nuclear program, may indicate that Xi has given him pause.
In the White House’s telling, Xi is responding to pressure by Trump to threaten a cutoff of the North’s financial links and energy supplies — its twin lifelines as a state.
“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” Trump asked in a Twitter post on Sunday morning, making it clear that everything, including the trade issues he vowed to solve as a candidate, could be a bargaining chip when it comes to defanging the North.
The North is trying to create the sense that it is too late for any such defanging — that it has reached a tipping point in its nuclear push. That is why Kim stood for hours as so many missiles rolled by on Saturday, carried on portable launch vehicles that can be hidden in hundreds of tunnels bored into North Korean mountains.
For all the talk of an eventual intercontinental missile that can reach the US, one of the stars of the show was a missile of lesser range — the Pukguksong-2, also known as the KN-15.
It is a solid-fuel rocket that can be launched in minutes, unlike liquid-fueled missiles, which take hours of preparation. That means they are far less vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike from a US missile launched from a base in Japan or from a carrier strike group like the one Trump has put off the Korean coast.
The KN-15 was successfully tested in February. On Saturday, it was paraded in public for the first time, like a conquering hero fresh from a moon landing.
“The big takeaway is that they’re taking this seriously,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea specialist at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, in California. “They’re trying to develop operational systems that might actually survive on the ground,” perhaps even enduring blows meant to leave them crippled or destroyed.
However, Kim’s otherwise triumphant day took a bad turn when the missile test failed. North Korea used to be pretty successful at launching missiles, so much so that its missiles were sold around the world. Then its launches started failing, suggesting the presence of a hidden Washington hand.
Its big setbacks have revolved around the most threatening missile it has so far flight-tested, known as the Musudan. Last year, it had a failure rate of 88 percent. Kim was reported to have ordered an investigation into the possibility of foreign sabotage, and the missile has remained unseen since.
Asked on Fox News on Sunday whether the US had played any role in the latest missile failure, K.T. McFarland, McMaster’s departing deputy, said: “You know we can’t talk about that.”
Most likely, no one knows for sure, but the ambiguity feeds North Korea’s paranoia, intelligence experts say.