April 26, 2017

CNAS Press Note: High Tension in North Korea and U.S. Options on the Korean Peninsula

With top Trump administration national security officials set to brief all 100 U.S. Senators in an unprecedented meeting at the White House on North Korea’s recent aggressions, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) President Richard FontaineAsia-Pacific Security Program Director Dr. Patrick Cronin, and researcher Anthony Cho have written a new Press Note, “High Tension in North Korea and U.S. Options on the Korean Peninsula.”

Please find the full Press Note below:

Recent North Korean actions, including the detention of a U.S. citizen and the largest live-fire military drills in the country’s history on April 25th, have prompted President Donald Trump to summon the entire U.S. Senate to the White House for an unprecedented briefing from the nation’s top defense and national security officials.

Rising tensions have also shifted U.S. strategic posture vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula with the USS Carl Vinson carrier group now joined by the USS Michigan, a guided-missile submarine, in the region. These moves suggest North Korea remains a top defense and foreign policy issue for the United States as the Trump administration shifts gears out of the previous administration’s policy of “strategic patience.”

Further, as stakes rise on the Korean peninsula, the United States is having to face the reality that its window of opportunity and margin for error are shrinking by the day. If the North Korean missile and nuclear programs continue to develop unimpeded, they will soon have the capabilities of reaching the continental United States in addition to holding Seoul and Tokyo hostage. Ultimately, there is no risk-free option for North Korea and the situation could get worse before it gets better.

Yet the United States is not without the tools to address this issue. In addition to its defense and deterrence, the United States can employ cooperative diplomatic and economic efforts to guide the North Korea crisis into an advantageous direction. Although it is easy to find reference to “war” and “preemptive strike,” the Trump administration has made it clear that it is embarked on a comprehensive pressure strategy that aims to persuade China to further squeeze Pyongyang to the negotiating table while simultaneously applying a legal tourniquet on North Korea’s illicit global business enterprise and elevating the diplomatic and propaganda campaigns against the Kim Jong Un regime.

Every regional actor is also facing their own domestic pressure. Kim Jong Un is in constant need of consolidating his authority and maintaining his own legitimacy. China’s Xi Jinping is seeking to avoid any situation that could upend his aims for the 19th Party Congress later this year. Even U.S. allies face their own challenges with a special presidential election looming in South Korea that could shift the tenor of the alliance and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeking to capitalize on these tensions to press ahead with his ambitions for normalizing Japan’s defense forces.

The key for the United States will be to monitor and maneuver around this field of challenges while building and persisting through a strategy that balances the “Mission Accomplished” mentality of Iraq and the “Munich” mentality of appeasement that uses all four elements of the dollar, defense, deterrence, and diplomacy approach.

President Barack Obama warned President-elect Donald Trump early on that North Korea should be the highest national security priority for the United States. The White House briefing to the U.S. Senate by the quartet of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats demonstrates increasing coordination and resolve by the Trump administration to standup to North Korea.

Fontaine, Dr. Cronin, and Cho are available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at 202-457-9409 or [email protected]


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...

  • Anthony Cho

    Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2024 Next Gen National Security Fellow

    Anthony Cho is the Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes (TFFC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In this role, he works...