The Trump administration accelerated its North Korea policy review so that it could be completed for the recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Initial indications are that the administration will emphasize improving defense capabilities (particularly ballistic missile defense), augmenting pressure tactics on Pyongyang and seeking ways to convince Beijing to fully enforce United Nations sanctions.
Contrary to widespread misconceptions that North Korea is the "most heavily sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on earth," as President Barack Obama asserted, there is still much the U.S. can do increase pressure and leverage on the recalcitrant regime. It was therefore a welcome development that the Trump administration appeared to be moving toward more vigorously upholding U.S. laws and defending the U.S. financial system against those who misuse it.
For too long, the U.S. has pulled its punches by only reluctantly and incrementally sanctioning North Korean and Chinese entities that are violating U.N. resolutions and U.S. laws. The Obama administration also refrained from sanctioning any Chinese violators until forced to do so by Congressional pressure last year. Chinese entities should no longer receive defacto immunity from U.S. law.
As such, it is disturbing that the president so quickly abandoned his strong rhetoric and pledges to increase pressure on Beijing to more fully implement required U.N. sanctions and no longer turn a blind eye to prohibited activities taking place on its soil. The Trump administration's intent to more fully enforce U.S. laws, including imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese violators, is now on hold pending Beijing fulfilling pledges made privately during the summit.
In the run-up to the summit, President Donald Trump had vowed to press China to "solve" North Korea. The president indicated that he would use Chinese trade with the U.S. as incentive to force greater Chinese action against North Korea.Yet, after the summit, Trump flipped his position, commenting that Chinese President Xi Jinping had "explain[ed] thousands of years of history with Korea. Not that easy … not as simple as people would think" for China to exert pressure. Trump proclaimed that Xi is "going to try very hard" on North Korea."
The president acknowledged that his softer position on China was due to its perceived help on North Korea, asking, "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?"
Trump should be made aware that Beijing has frequently promised tougher action on North Korea, only to underperform every time. Post-summit Chinese actions touted by the administration as indicative of Beijing's good faith efforts are, as before, less than meets the eye. Any reluctance to enforce U.S. laws and hold in abeyance more effective pressure tactics on Pyongyang should have a very short expiration date. Otherwise Trump runs the risk of being criticized, as George W. Bush was, of "sub-contracting out U.S. policy to China."
During the North Korea policy review, private discussions with administration officials indicated that some options, such as a pre-emptive attack to prevent Pyongyang from completing development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, were initially discussed but subsequently rejected. However, recent assertive public statements by the president and senior officials suggest the option remains under consideration.
The White House warned that Trump has put North Korea "clearly on notice" and may take "decisive and proportional" action as seen in the airstrikes on Syria." A senior White House official declared that "the clock has now run out and all options are on the table."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented that "the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken." Tillerson previously stated that if the North Koreans "elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that [military] option is on the table."
Uncertainties as to how far Trump will go to prevent North Korea from achieving an ICBM are now the greatest factor for escalating tensions in the region. With all sides leaning further forward on hair-trigger responses, there is a greater danger of misinterpreting the other's intentions and preemptive attack.
The Trump administration may have painted itself into a corner on North Korea. Perceptions that Trump has drawn a red line on North Korea could further exacerbate the situation or lead to Washington being seen as a paper tiger.
This piece originally appeared in USA Today