Firing rockets during a North Korean military drill in an undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.
KCNA / VIA REUTERS

The biggest change that U.S. President Donald Trump has brought to North Korea policy is rhetorical—but the strategic implications may be huge. In terms of actual policy, the Trump administration’s “strategic accountability” owes more to the Barack Obama administration’s “strategic patience” than either its architects or its critics might like to admit. The central thrust of the policy is to cajole Beijing into putting greater pressure on Pyongyang, as was attempted in the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions and in numerous presidential tweets. Indeed, rather than breaking with the past, Trump seems to have inherited a misconception that China is the key to solving the North Korea problem. 

Despite the underlying policy continuity, however, there has been a major shift in the way this administration talks about North Korea. The president coyly alludes to pre-emptive strikes, and his senior advisors explicitly bring up “preventive war.” These ideas have featured frequently in the media and have become normalized in public discussion. The so-called military option, a fringe position a year ago, is now part of the mainstream debate. 

Trump seems to have inherited a misconception that China is the key to solving the North Korea

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  • JOHN DELURY is an Associate Professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies.

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