As world leaders gather in Hamburg for the G20 Summit, North Korea will be high on the agenda following Pyongyang’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told a UN Security Council meeting the US was willing to meet this development with force ‘if we must’.

At a Lowy Institute event in Canberra on 19 June, Jake Sullivan, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Hilary Clinton and the 2017 Lowy Institute Telstra Distinguished International Fellow, discussed the nature of the North Korean threat and the difficulties that confront any US administration searching for solutions to it. First, Sullivan outlined why ICBM capability is so important for North Korea:

Kim Jong Un wants to be able to say to the South Koreans, America’s extended deterrence, their nuclear umbrella for you, isn’t worth a darn. Because we can hold them at risk, you can’t count on them to come to your defence. Now, America would never allow that to happen under any circumstances but that begins to have a destabilising effect.

Then he explained how the US struggles with the China factor:

A typical meeting in the White House situation room on China usually involves someone saying ‘you know, everyone agrees from every intelligence service out there that the North Koreans aren’t going to give this up easily and that the Chinese are limited in what they can do.’ Then, for the next two hours, the only agenda item is ‘what can we get the Chinese to do to make the North Koreans give up their nuclear weapons?’ There is this kind of disconnect in what everybody – all the experts out there – seem to say and what we keep trying to do in terms of our policy.

And while Sullivan has plenty of bones to pick with the Trump administration over many aspects of its foreign policy, when it comes to North Korea, he is more understanding than critical:

I think they are casting about, just like we would have done if we had won, for a potential solution to a wicked problem.

You can listen to Sullivan's remarks in this podcast of the event. The North Korea discussion begins at 27:33.