Trump: U.S. will resolve North Korea conflict, with or without China

A man watches a TV news program showing an image, published in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper, of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the country's Sohae launch site, at Seoul Railway station in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

As he prepares to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, President Donald Trump is floating a possible change in the U.S. posture toward the conflict and China’s role in resolving it.

“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”

Trump provided few details of what he is expecting from China, but he insisted the U.S. can “totally” handle North Korea without the Chinese if necessary.

“Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” he said. “That is all I am telling you.”

Xi is traveling to Florida to meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago Thursday. A statement issued by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said the summit will focus on matters of “great significance” and will be “extremely important” to the future of U.S.-China relations.

Trump has been very critical of China’s trade policies, but the increasingly aggressive behavior of North Korea has likely placed it near the top of the agenda for Trump and Xi’s meetings.

Trump’s comments to the Financial Times came about two weeks after North Korea conducted tests on what is believed to be an engine that could be used in intercontinental ballistic missiles. Once perfected, that technology may enable Pyongyang to threaten the western United States.

North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear warhead last year. It has not yet demonstrated a capacity to miniaturize a warhead to be carried by an ICBM.

The U.S. and South Korea are currently conducting their annual Foal Eagle joint military drills, which Chinese officials have complained increase tensions in the region.

Whether the U.S. can resolve this crisis unilaterally depends very much on what Trump’s goals are.

“I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the media over the means that will be applied to the problem but not the ends,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of The Nonproliferation Review.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. adopted a strategy of “strategic patience,” but current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that era is over.

Ideally, Pollack said, the objective of the U.S. and its allies is complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. That may still be the long term goal, but experts doubt it is possible in the short term.

“The North Koreans have been very explicit that they have no intention of ever giving up their nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

It should be possible to impose some restrictions on North Korea’s nuclear activity, but that would be far easier to do with cooperation from China, which accounts for the vast majority of North Korea’s trade but has been reluctant to implement and enforce existing sanctions.

“They clearly don’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons but they have a couple of higher priority goals,” Bennett said.

China fears Kim Jong Un’s regime will collapse and send hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into some of its poorest regions, and it does not want to see the conflict snowball into a destructive military battle.

According to Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, there are a number of steps the U.S. could take on its own, and now may be a good time to try them if China is unwilling to step up.

“It’s a losing battle because the Chinese are not going to get to the level of pressure that we need them to get to,” said Ruggiero, who served as a nonproliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation in negotiations with North Korea in 2005.

One of those measures would be imposing more economic sanctions, including some that would punish Chinese businesses that are complicit in North Korea’s activities.

“The way you pressure North Korea is take away the things that they value,” Ruggiero said. That includes their nuclear program and their ability to purchase luxury goods from overseas to appease their elites. Even without Chinese cooperation, the U.S. could engage in interdiction of ships carrying goods into North Korea and increase military assets in the region.

Other possible options experts have mentioned include cyber-strikes and psychological operations aimed at undermining Kim.

Reuters reports that national security officials have rushed to complete a review of U.S. options that Trump had requested before he meets with Xi. The document recommended a mix of economic and military measures, some of which could rankle China.

An administration official told Reuters the review prioritizes non-military actions but pre-emptive military strikes have not been ruled out.

Pollack said full disarmament of North Korea cannot be accomplished without China, if it is possible at all. China has shown a willingness to use trade coercively in the past, but there is a fundamental lack of trust between China and the U.S. that impedes cooperation.

According to Ruggiero, China is more focused on keeping the North Korean regime in place than disarming it.

“I think the Chinese are probably pretty happy with where we are with the status quo,” he said.

Japan and South Korea have generally been supportive of U.S. efforts to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but experts say they have little leverage to influence the talks themselves.

“The Japanese have effectively sidelined themselves in North Korean diplomacy by making one issue paramount…and that is a full accounting of the fate of Japanese abducted by North Koreans in the past,” Pollack said.

South Korea has taken a hard line with North Korea since 2010, but it has already scaled back its relations with Pyongyang.

“They have essentially played all of their cards,” he said.

If Japan and South Korea cannot apply much pressure to North Korea, Ruggiero suggested they can act against Chinese interests to make Beijing more pliant to U.S. demands. He pointed to the uproar over Trump’s campaign comments seemingly encouraging the countries to develop their own nuclear weapons, something that China would strongly object to.

Responding to North Korea’s recent missile-testing activity is one of the fledgling Trump administration’s first diplomatic challenges, and amid mixed messaging on various issues from the White House, it may also represent a test of the president’s credibility.

“If I were a foreign leader, I’d be asking myself who speaks for this administration,” Pollack said.

Given Trump’s frequent criticism of China on the campaign trail, the meeting with Xi could be tense. He often placed much of the burden for resolving the North Korea conflict on Beijing and claimed the Chinese were not doing enough.

Since the election, President Trump has vowed on Twitter that he will not allow North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons capable of targeting the U.S. and he has twice criticized China because it has “done little to help.”

In the past, he has been even more blunt.

“North Korea can't survive, or even eat, without the help of China,” he tweeted in 2013. “China could solve this problem with one phone call-they love taunting us!”

It is hard to tell whether the administration’s lack of specificity on North Korea is a product of the kind of strategic unpredictability Trump often spoke of while campaigning or just a sign that the White House has no strategy.

“I worry that the North Koreans will take it in the worst way possible,” Pollack said. They may interpret Trump’s relative silence as an indication of a surprise attack, which could provoke a dangerous response.

A North Korean defector told NBC News in an interview that aired Sunday that Kim Jong Un is desperate to maintain his power and sees developing nuclear weapons as an essential part of that. He described Kim as “a man who can do anything beyond the normal imagination.”

"Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM," Thae Yong Ho said.

China insists it has far less influence over North Korea than Trump and others have claimed, but its government has also maintained that it will not tolerate war or chaos in the region.

“If China is really serious about North Korea, it needs to be prepared to take further action,” Bennett said.

What Xi is willing to do and say during his visit to Mar-a-Lago this week could provide a strong indication of how worried China is about instability in Pyongyang and how far it is willing to go to rein in Kim’s potential nuclear threat.

However, if the Trump administration is counting on China to change North Korea’s behavior, experts say the president may need a backup plan.

“They hope to coerce the Chinese into coercing the North Koreans and I think both of those are very, very tall orders,” Pollack said.

Ruggiero had a similarly pessimistic prognosis.

“Working with China to pressure North Korea is doomed to fail,” he said.

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