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Can Trump Enforce His Red Line on North Korea?
Published by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
James Acton
It was only eight years ago that the United States had just one president at a time. Yet those days have felt much more distant over the past two months as the president-elect, Donald Trump, has set about merrily reshaping U.S. policy 140 characters at a time.
Tuesday evening saw what might turn out to be one of his more consequential Twitter proclamations. In a New Year’s address, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, had stated that his country had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.” In response, Trump tweeted that “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
If Trump’s tweet is to be taken literally—and perhaps, as the saying goes, it should be taken seriously but not literally—he appears to have committed to preventing Kim from acquiring the capability to threaten the United States with a nuclear-armed missile, as opposed to necessarily stopping the test that Kim says he is planning. Yet, regardless of Trump’s actual intentions, the tweet could come to be seen as a “red line” and hence set up a potential test of his credibility. Much will depend, of course, on whether Trump subsequently doubles down on his pledge, but now that the tweet is out there, he has only limited influence on how it is viewed by North Korea, U.S. allies, and the American people.