North Korea's sudden and apparent vault into the ranks of the world's nuclear powers presents an immediate threat to global security, and the Trump administration has precious little time to manage this crisis toward a peaceful solution. The White House needs to improve its relationship with the nation's intelligence community to encourage a better understanding of the North's capability and timetable, engage more on the diplomatic front and tamp down the administration's rhetoric about a military option. There is no room for error, and the United States cannot sit on the sidelines while the president tweets about the size of his nuclear button.
The New York Times, in an alarming account published Sunday, detailed how America's intelligence agencies under administrations from both political parties missed key developments in the North's nuclear program and now security analysts fear North Korea is much closer to creating a viable intercontinental ballistic weapon. For decades, U.S. intelligence had accurately predicted the North's arc toward a nuclear weapon and the broad outline of when that capability would be achieved. Yet the CIA and other American intelligence services misjudged the North's technological nimbleness and the priority that its young, new and mercurial leader, Kim Jong Un, would place on becoming a nuclear power. The intelligence failure has only intensified the security threat facing the United States, particularly when an impulsive president has sent mixed signals about how America will respond.
Intelligence agencies told the incoming Trump administration that North Korea was likely up to four years away from fielding a nuclear missile that could hit the United States, the New York Times reported — an assessment that experts now say looks wildly out of date, given the rapid pace of the North's nuclear testing last year, culminating in a test in November of an improved ICBM that could fly about 8,100 miles, far enough to threaten the entire United States. Officials and analysts say the North could overcome its final hurdle — building a warhead that could survive re-entry into the atmosphere — in months or a couple years.
The intelligence on North Korea's progress and the sorry state of American diplomacy on the issue all point to the need for the administration to take a new approach. First, the White House must repair its relationship with the intelligence agencies. Having a clear understanding of North Korea's ability and intentions is difficult enough without an air of suspicion and distrust between the president and the intelligence services. In his first year in office, Trump has all but declared open warfare on the intelligence agencies, calling their leaders "political hacks" in response to the spy community's findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Trump needs to stop being defensive about his victory and focus on the issue at hand. Intelligence officers need to have confidence they can give the president the unvarnished insight he needs to make difficult decisions.
The administration also needs to start speaking consistently and with a single voice on its interest in finding a diplomatic solution. The direct talks between North and South Korea that open this week are encouraging, even as confidence-building steps, but the United States should be at the table. America will be involved in any deal to remove the nuclear threat from the Korean peninsula; its diplomatic isolation from North Korea and its changing attitudes on China's role leave a credibility void.
Trump also needs to lower the volume. His penchant for drama may work on prime time TV, but escalating the rhetoric with Kim could easily lead to a military miscalculation. Trump's counter-boast to Kim that he possessed a "much bigger" nuclear button undercuts the seriousness of this situation. With North Korea surprisingly close to the nuclear capability it desires, the challenge now is for the United States to join the international community and confront this threat with the focus and coordination it will require to avoid catastrophe. The clock is ticking.