WASHINGTON, Apr 19 – After a few days of saber-rattling, US President Donald Trump’s administration has reverted to the same North Korea policy as its predecessor: relying on China to control Pyongyang. The USS Carl Vinson carrier battle group, which Trump boasted last week was the “armada, very powerful” to bring leader Kim Jong-un to heel is instead carrying out drills off the coast of Australia.
And in Washington, top officials now express hope that North Korea’s great power neighbor China will apply the necessary political and economic pressure to halt its nuclear tests. Beijing, of course, has made this promise before, and experts warn there is no particular reason why China would honor it now – but the White House seems to have few better options. Last week, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Vinson was “on her way up” to the Korean peninsula.
Four days later the ship was photographed sailing the other way, into the Indian Ocean. On Tuesday, Mattis said the United States is “working so closely” with China towards the aim of denuclearizing the peninsula, adding hopefully that: “We all share that same interest.” Trump also expressed confidence that – after his summit earlier this month with Chinese leader Xi Jinping – the standoff will be resolved with Beijing’s full support.
Speaking to Fox News television, Trump said he was dealing with Xi “with great respect” and that China had already begun enforcing more strictly its own ban on coal imports from North Korea. “Nobody’s ever seen it like that. Nobody’s ever seen such a positive response on our behalf from China,” he said.
But if Pyongyang is nervous that international sanctions are about to bite, it has not shown it, and senior officials have vowed to continue nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The regime carried out a failed test-firing of a medium-range missile on Saturday, shortly after a parade showcased an impressive arsenal of apparently nuclear-capable rockets.
And North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations vowed that any US strike would provoke “the toughest counteraction.” The United States has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea and powerful assets at sea and in air bases around the region, but North Korea has artillery within range of Seoul.
South Korea is staging a tense election campaign and the public both there and around the region is fearful that either Kim or Trump or both might make good on their warlike rhetoric. Washington would prefer that China turn the screw on North Korea’s coal exports and fuel imports, dissuading them from carrying out the sixth nuclear test they have threatened.
“We’ve seen some tangible indications that they’re working towards this end, but it’s still quite early. President Trump is very hopeful the Chinese will undertake to use the considerable leverage that they have over the economic lifeblood of the North Korean economy,” said Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian affairs.
Longtime observers of the crisis are skeptical. “I still don’t think that China is going to put the kind of pressure that’s necessary on North Korea,” said Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ruggiero and fellow hawks worry that Beijing will not take stern measures against its neighbor until action is taken against the Chinese banks that collaborate with Pyongyang.
Beijing has signed up to UN sanctions against North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and in February vowed to halt coal imports, but trade and finance continue. There have been several cases of Chinese companies and banks working with North Korean networks to evade sanctions, Ruggiero argues, and only the threat of US legal action with halt this.
For the former veteran US official, China does not deserve praise for merely “sending back a couple of coal vessels for a sanction that they should have been implementing last year.” “The only way this is going to work is if the Chinese are targeted themselves,” he argued. So if China won’t help, what are the options? Last week Trump warned darkly that if his China outreach fails, the North “will be taken care of” by the United States and its allies.
But – whatever speculation about a military option and despite sanctions proving so unsuccessful for Trump’s predecessors – Thornton told reporters that a choice had been made. “We have made a decision … to maximize pressure, economic pressure, on the North Korean regime to try to get it to make tangible steps to roll back their illegal programs,” she said. — AFP