Donald Trump once said that he wanted to share a hamburger with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Now that he’s President, fast food diplomacy looks to be off the menu. Instead, the tough talk has started and Trump has used an interview with the FT today to warn that America will act against North Korea unless China clamps down on the regime in Pyongyang. He said:
‘Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you’
That Trump has singled out North Korea is no accident, nor is it much of a surprise. In the weeks after the election, the outgoing Obama administration warned Trump’s team that it considered the threat posed by Kim Jong Un to be America’s top national security priority. In many ways, Trump has sought to distance himself from his predecessors. But in talking tough against North Korea, ‘The Donald’ is making an exception. After all, Obama once told Pyongyang: ‘We could destroy you’ (even if his failure to act over his ‘red line’ in Syria undoubtedly undermined this threat); and George W. Bush famously said North Korea was part of the ‘axis of evil’. More than a decade on from that remark, little has actually changed. In fact, things have arguably got worse, with the country stepping up its campaign of missile tests. So the key question now is: will Trump be the one who actually walks the walk?
At the very least, Trump certainly seems determined to pile the pressure on North Korea. Since taking office, America’s loudest President has repeatedly issued warnings to the country: he’s called the current situation a ‘mess’ and said, just a few weeks ago, that North Korea’s nuclear threat had entered a ‘new-phase’. Meanwhile, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that ‘the policy of strategic patience’ was over.
This sense of urgency has led to a review of what to do about North Korea being rushed through in time for this week’s summit in Florida with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Trump has said before that he expected the meeting to be ‘very difficult’. Now, that seems guaranteed. China has previously done its best to calm Washington – urging the US to return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, China has pursued a policy of quiet acquiescence towards its noisy neighbour. That uneasy status quo looks numbered. But if Trump does decide to act, what can he actually do?
In his interview with the FT, Trump’s language is typically difficult to pin down. He was asked whether a ‘grand deal’ – whereby the US agreed to take its troops out of the Korean peninsula, if China promised to up pressure on Pyongyang – was an option. Trump replied by saying: ‘Well if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.’ On the possibility of America going it alone against North Korea, Trump was similarly vague: ‘I don’t have to say any more. Totally,’ he told the FT. The paper goes on to quote Dennis Wilder, a former CIA analyst of China, who says that it’s clear Trump is trying to ‘press the Chinese hard’ – warning them of the possibility of sanctions against Chinese companies who deal with Pyongyang if things don’t change.
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, interprets Trump’s remarks as a bid to tie-up ‘U.S. imports of Chinese goods with China’s cooperation on North Korea’. The paper says that the President has spoken about making the country’s trade deficit with China a priority – and suggests that his latest comments could be part of the strategy of toughening up talk on Beijing. But would such a plan actually work? The Journal calls China’s relationship with North Korea ‘complicated’ and says that the country has previously been willing to ‘act as a buffer between communist China and American-backed South Korea’. ‘Mr. Trump has seen China as an important part of the calculus in curbing the North Korean threat’, says the paper. But it’s clear from his latest remarks that he’s now weighing up the option of going it alone – ‘with or without Beijing’s help’.
The New York Times measures up the possibilities for Trump, and says that the President – as with Obama – will be ‘quickly discovering that he must choose from highly imperfect options’. A cyber war would be an easy pick, but has no guarantee. While opening up talks with the country – which China has called for the US to do – ‘would leave a looming threat in place’, says the New York Times. What about missile strikes? The paper says that this is an option Obama considered himself. Yet it’s far from perfect: the risk of casualties coupled with the fact that there is ‘little chance of hitting every target’ makes this a risky bet. Whatever Trump decides, it seems at some stage he will have to put his money where his mouth is. At the very least, stepping up pressure on China will be a key ingredient of Trump’s strategy – and cutting off ‘trade and support’ would undoubtedly make life difficult for North Korea. But, as the NYT points out, ‘Beijing has always stopped short of steps that could lead to the regime’s collapse’. So far, there is little to suggest things will be different this time around.