Exclusive: Trump team to ‘turn up the volume’ on North Korea

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s administration is set to send a stark message to North Korea that could force the rogue regime to cease its belligerent behavior or, if history is any indicator, could further antagonize its unpredictable leader. 

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A senior Trump administration official told WTOP they are about to “turn up the volume” on North Korea. A “new approach involving more substantial pressure” than has ever been used is about to be rolled out, the official said.

Declining to provide details about how that “pressure” would be implemented, the official said the Trump administration objective is to force North Korea to return to negotiations by implementing a set of unprecedented and possibly crippling financial sanctions.

“Money talks, and it is a vulnerability for that regime. We don’t want a situation where outside trade and other investment ties with North Korea permit them to continue working on these programs to build the world’s most terrible weapons,” said the official.

Comparing the pressure to what the U.S. levied on Iran, the official said, “What we’re doing in the financial and economic space to North Korea is far short of what we did in the Iranian space, and is far short of what we could be doing right now.”

But the official noted that ratcheting up pressure on North Korea comes with risk.

Late reports on Tuesday by international observers indicated that possible preparations were underway at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site – suggesting another may be coming soon.

The regime has made significant progress on both nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

“North Korea over the last few years has been able to produce more nuclear weapons, and to miniaturize those weapons,” said Joseph Detrani, former director of the U.S. National Counter Proliferation Center. “And they are working on mating them to their missile delivery systems.”

Detrani, who was the U.S. mission manager for North Korea, said, “the recent successful test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam — a system that is solid-fueled and mobile — speaks to the technical advances North Korea’s made with its missile delivery systems.”

In addition to the deployment of nuclear weapons on one of its short-to-medium-range missiles capable of striking South Korea or Japan — where tens of thousands of U.S. service members are deployed — there’s worry about the KN08. That intercontinental ballistic missile is believed to be capable of hitting targets across the continental U.S.

Its recent tests of various missiles have reaffirmed to the Trump administration that North Korea is reckless and resolute about its objectives.

“North Korea is a nation that operates on the very outer edges of rationality, and even China shouldn’t feel safe. North Korea is a friend of no one. It’s about the survival of the Kim regime,” the official said.

China provides an estimated $7 billion in aid to North Korea each year. Still, North Korea’s repeated disregard for Chinese demands that it scale back belligerent behavior has signaled that it answers to no one beyond its leader, Kim Jong Un.

The recent assassination of his brother Kim Jong Nam — who lived in the autonomous Chinese region of Macau — by North Korean agents further demonstrated the regime’s indifference to China’s authority.

But there are indications that the U.S. arm twisting will work, because of the culture the Kim regime has created.

“If turning up the heat involves more-effective implementation of the [U.N] sanctions, the North Koreans will take notice, because we do know that this regime, the regime of the Kim family, ultimately cares about its fundamental strategic objective, which is its own survival,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The only other necessities the regime cares about, he said, are “legitimacy and their pocketbook.”

“Hard currency is what enables them to develop the nuclear and missile programs, which they see as essential to staying in power and ensuring that North Korea is uninvadable,” Scarlatoiu said.

“And hard currency earnings from their overseas operations also enables the regime to earn the resources it needs to keep the key elites happy.”

The Trump team will not tolerate North Korean threats and attempts to bully the U.S., the senior administration official said.

“The goals of their nuclear program go beyond mere deterrence,” the official said. “They also include nefarious, offensive kind of goals, namely to use those weapons to try to blackmail countries in the region to provide money, and to blackmail the U.S. into a peace agreement.”

“President Trump has made it clear that the United States is not prepared to live with a North Korean nuclear threat against American cities,” said the official.

“This is a time,” Detrani said, “for the Trump administration to be proactive with a North Korea that’s quickly approaching a point where there, they will become an existential threat to the United States as they currently are to our allies South Korea and Japan and the region.”

The U.S. has tried to deal sincerely with North Korea over the course of more than 20 years and four presidential administrations, the senior administration official said.

“We’ve offered talks with aid and other forms of support, through multiple forums and types of talks … to show them that there is a better path for their nation,” the official said. “And those efforts have failed.”

That, according to the official, has left the U.S. with “a path towards tougher and tougher and more resolute action toward North Korea until they’re willing to come to the negotiating table to have substantive negotiations with the United States.”

When threatened with more intense pressure and demands to conform to acceptable, diplomatic behavior in the past, the Kim regime has responded with provocative acts, including kidnapping of American citizens and confrontational military activities near South Korea and Japan.

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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