I have seen a few references to Obama telling President Trump that North Korea would be his toughest challenge. With all the other activities going on such as Russia meddling with US elections, ISIS and the Syrian Civil War, why would North Korea be at the top of the list?
I am asking why it wouldn't all of the above at the time.

  • 1
    More importantly, North Korea may really attack the US if they manage to develop long-range missiles in the long run so it's sort of a "better safe than sorry" approach.
    – Panda
    Apr 18, 2017 at 14:21
  • 2
    NK is crazy. Crazy is always a challenge.
    – user1530
    Apr 18, 2017 at 14:49
  • 2
    What @blip said. They don't conduct international relations like anyone else. Most of the normal tools to apply leverage and negotiate with other countries do not work on them. They are almost totally isolated, do not care much for the well-being of their people, and peace and cooperation are so foreign to them that they are utterly reliant on perpetuating a state of war. They view other countries not as equals but potential victims, standard tactic is to threaten and extort concessions, then break their promises so they can extort more concessions. In short, they are crazy.
    – J Doe
    Apr 18, 2017 at 18:06
  • 2
    And we can't ignore their threats because, even without nukes, they have enough conventional weaponry aimed at Seoul to level it.
    – J Doe
    Apr 18, 2017 at 18:08

3 Answers 3


I can't find that Obama quote you mention except behind a paywall, but the differences between ISIS and North-Korea are staggering. ISIS or Assad doesn't have the capability to attack Seoul – a metropolitan area of over 25 million people – with nuclear weapons. North-Korea does. Even all the terrorist attacks of the last twenty years combined pale in comparison to that.

Seoul is a safe bet because it's so close to the North-Korean border, and although the exact range and capabilities of the missiles aren't known, it's very likely that North-Korea can attack a whole lot more than just Seoul.

As I mentioned in a previous answer, an actual nuclear war is not likely, but it's not impossible either. And right now North-Korea is the most likely to actually use their Nuclear weapons in some escalation with one of its perceived enemies, which is basically the entire world minus China, but their favourite enemies are of course South-Korea, Japan, and the United States.

There are also no easy solutions in sight; it'll be near-impossible to take out all the nukes and diplomacy also hasn't proven very useful.

Trump seems to agree with Obama on the scale of the problem, by the way.

  • As an additional point on this, North Korea has significant emplacements of conventional weapons within range of Seoul. They could devastate the city and surroundings without needing to resort to nuclear weapons. Apr 27, 2018 at 19:20
  • "Trump seems to agree with Obama on the scale of the problem" - I guess that he fell out of love ;-) Sep 5, 2020 at 8:40

North Korea has a unique combination of "can do catastrophic harm," "has enough crazy," and "has nothing to lose" that almost any other entity out there does not. The leadership has been so sheltered and disconnected from reality, that's it seems like they actually believe a lot of their own bluster, hype and propaganda, which most other players probably do not.

As much as Obama was criticized for taking the long-view on a lot of his foreign policy, his less showy but more thoughtful responses to Russia on other issues did them real harm, either in standing, influence or economically. They have a lot to lose, all over the world, so their actions are somewhat tempered by that.

ISIS and Syria, while troublesome are really not problems that directly threaten US lives or security, for the most part, and are largely contained and not of a huge scale in the damage that they are capable of, no matter how much news organizations want to hype someone driving a truck into a crowd, for example. The recent gas attack, if Assad is responsible, is still small, in scale, compared to what an all-out artillery shelling of Seoul would be, or a short-range missile attack with chemical munitions from the North.

  • "North Korea has a unique combination of "can do catastrophic harm," "has enough crazy," and "has nothing to lose" that almost any other entity out there does not" - I'll see your North Korea and raise you donald Sep 5, 2020 at 8:42
  • @MawgsaysreinstateMonica - Trump being a complete nut, himself, doesn't somehow de-nuttify North Korea, so I'm going to assume that this isn't a rebuttal as much as an observation. Sep 8, 2020 at 13:24

why would North Korea be at the top of the list?

Unlike many of the adversaries we have faced, N Korea is the first country that has the capability to hit back and hit back hard.

Plus, it has the backing of Russia and China.

Their close proximity with S Korea and Japan doesn't exactly help.

  • 10
    I don't think it's quite accurate to claim that North-Korea "has the backing of Russia". The relations between Russia and North-Korea are slightly warmer than the North-Korean relations with most other countries, but this is hardly saying much. There are embassies, some treaties, and trade, but this hardly classifies as "backing". Russia also joined in many of the international sanctions and has at times even been vocally critical.
    – user11249
    Apr 18, 2017 at 16:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .