In the six years since Kim Jong-Un’s ascension to power within the North Korean government, Pyongyang has expanded its nuclear arsenal to protect itself from what it sees as military threats from South Korea and the United States. During this same period, the United States military, under President Obama’s instruction, engaged in a secret cyber-campaign to cripple the North Korean missile system.

As was first reported by New York Times’ David Sanger and William Broad in early March, the United States has for three years used cyber attacks to disrupt North Korean missile launches. This has all been part of a prolonged attempt to delay their nuclear program and give an advantage to the American antimissile defense system.

The so-called ‘Left of Launch’ strategy involves using all available tools to prevent ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from getting off the ground. With new technological developments and increased funding to the National Nuclear Security Administration under President Trump’s preliminary budget outline, offensive cyber and electronic attacks could become more commonplace in US endeavors to disrupt North Korean missiles. Under Obama’s strategy, North Korean missile development slowed when tests resulted in midair explosions and malfunctioning guidance and mechanical systems.

Over the last two years, in response to the relative success of this cyber warfare program, North Korea retaliated with a demonstration of its cyber capabilities. North Korea’s aggressions have included signal-jamming South Korea’s guided missiles and hacking Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Sony hack occurring as a result of the planned release of The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.

If this cyber strategy is pursued in the long-term by the United States, it could pose significant threats to American interests. The continuation of US cyber action could encourage both Russia and China to develop cyber attack capabilities, then attempt to target the US nuclear arsenal as suggested by Sanger and Broad. In addition, cyber attacks could result in expanded military escalation and increased probability that a nuclear missile is launched intentionally as a preemptive strike.

As US nuclear faculties continue to expand and North Korea’s achieving intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability becomes more likely, the Trump administration must decide whether to sustain Obama’s cyber approach or seek alternative means to negotiate with or undermine North Korea’s government. However, the risk of further destabilization is high for any long-term strategy. The most recent nuclear tests by North Korea and changing political winds in the East Asian region have driven this home.

American efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear program have repeatedly failed in the past, and Kim Jong-Un continues to try to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching American shores. Kim Jong-Un’s intents became evident when news of nuclear testing was released soon after President Donald Trump’s first month in office. While this was happening, Trump was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at the Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

The incident brought about disapproval from the American intelligence community that such sensitive information was discussed and that Mar-a-Lago club members had privileged access to the president during a national security discussion. To some, this kind of behavior was indicative of Trump’s lax security standards and impromptu approach to national security—however, press secretary Sean Spicer pointed out that Trump and the others with him discussed no sensitive material. Politico laid out an in-depth analysis of the espionage risk that Mar-a-Lago poses to national security, including the regular access of club and staff members who might be susceptible to blackmail as well as the potential for planted bugs throughout the resort. In spite of these criticisms, some have praised Trump for remaining quiet on the North Korean issue in order to project an American attitude of cool-headed indifference. Such an approach could prevent Kim Jong-Un from drawing unwarranted media attention.

Soon after, several publications reported that Kim Jong-Nam, Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, was assassinated in Malaysia. Sources like the New York Times and CNN have claimed that this could have been an attempt by the Kim regime to consolidate leadership in Pyongyang and preserve Kim Jong-Un’s sole claim to the North Korean government by removing Jong-Nam from the line of succession. The history of purges of other high-ranking North Korean officials underlines a larger strategy currently being undertaken by Kim Jong-Un to protect his position and maintain power within the country.

North Korea, seeing an opportunity to divide the United States from its allies in the region, has also recently accelerated its nuclear program and test-launched several missiles since Trump’s inauguration. The United States responded by deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea.

South Korean citizens have reacted poorly to US deployment of THAAD, however, likely because of the tense political climate in Seoul. On Friday, March 10th, South Korea’s president, Park Geun-Hye, was formally impeachedthus plunging the country into instability. This all occurred in the midst of tensions over North Korea’s nuclear tests. With this shift, there is an increasing likelihood that the presidency will be won by a candidate from one of the progressive opposition parties, some of whom have expressed uneasiness with the American deployment of THAAD in South Korea for fear of escalating tensions with their neighbors.

The most widely-supported presumptive candidate is Moon Jae-in, the opposition leader of the center-left Minjoo Party. Moon Jae-in is viewed by conservatives as too weak to confront the realities of North Korea. This is because of his reluctance to endorse a strong bilateral military relationship with the United States, as well as his support for closer engagement with Pyongyang.

“We have no choice but to recognise Kim Jong-un as a counterpart, whether we put pressure and impose sanctions on North Korea or hold dialogue,” Moon said during a press conference recently.

South Korea’s political instability is only the latest burden on East Asian politics; ties between countries are at their lowest points in years. The unpredictability of North Korea, historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, and the Chinese boycotting of South Korean goods because of the THAAD missile defense system have all presented new problems for the United States to contend with. In particular, the Japanese occupation of South Korea and forced abduction of Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II remain contentious issues between these two American allies and have prevented the US from presenting a common front against China and North Korea. The last three months have seen the international landscape change drastically, but there remains hope that a long-term strategy can be devised if the United States manages to engage Japan, South Korea, and China in a unified plan to counter the North Korean nuclear program.

Given the myriad issues facing the Trump administration domestically, it is unclear how he will give the North Korean issue the attention it demands. There were initial reports of planned back-channel talks between North Korean officials and former U.S. agents which were later canceled following the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam. In response, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, heightening tensions with neighboring countries and raising concern from the United States.

During Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s six-day visit to Japan, China, and South Korea beginning March 14th, Tillerson has sought to reaffirm existing American ties with these countries while exploring options for dealing with North Korea. He has also visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea; the DMZ has been the defacto border between the two countries since the end of the Korean War.

Perhaps most significantly, Secretary Tillerson proclaimed, “Let me be very clear, the policy of strategic patience has ended.” He was referring to the de facto stance taken by previous administrations to wait out North Korea in the hopes that Kim’s regime will collapse or capitulate to international pressure. Furthermore, Tillerson indicated that “all options are on the table” and suggested that the United States might be forced to take preemptive action against the escalating threat of North Korea’s weapons program.

Both an increasingly belligerent North Korea and changing dynamics in East Asia have increased the significance of a long-term strategy for maintaining peace in the region. With more options available but fewer missteps permitted, the Trump administration must now find a way to pacify its increasingly inflexible allies and resolve the nuclear problem once and for all. If America fails to curtail the development of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, the world will wake up to find itself in the hands of a newly empowered dictator.

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