SEOUL - U.S. President Donald Trump’s tough but vague talk on North Korea, in advance of this week’s visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, is fueling a wide range of speculation that he may pursue a major policy shift that could either lead to a grand bargain with Beijing or start a preemptive war.
In an interview with London's Financial Times on Sunday, Trump said that if China is not going to solve the problem of North Korea, "we will." He also noted China’s “great influence over North Korea" and warned that if Beijing did not help resolve the issue of Pyongyang’s rapidly advancing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, that “it won't be good for anyone."
Halting North Korea’s nuclear program and preventing the Kim Jong Un government from developing a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike the U.S. mainland, is expected to be a key issue Trump and Xi will discuss when the two leaders meet at the American president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida Thursday.
Tillerson and Mattis
The recent visits to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have helped reassure leaders in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul that Washington will continue to prioritize increasing economic sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to change its behavior and concede to give up its nuclear ambitions for economic aid and security guarantees.
Also, a recent U.S. national security review of North Korea policy reportedly emphasized sanctions and increasing pressure on Beijing by targeting more Chinese banks and firms that do business with North Korea.
Few expect Trump and Xi to reach a significant breakthrough on North Korea during their initial meeting. Beijing has long been unwilling to do anything that may destabilize the North and send millions of refugees across the border.
And there will be other issues on the table as well, like reducing China’s aggressive military moves in the South China Sea over disputed territorial claims, and trying to narrow the U.S. trade deficit with China, which was a major campaign issue for Trump.
But given the Trump administration’s emphasis that all options are on the table to deal with the North Korean threat, there is speculation he may seek a multi-layered deal with Xi that would include trade and regional security issues.
“The question is whether Washington is willing to, and able to, make concessions giving Beijing enough incentives so that the Chinese government will make a fundamental shift in its dealings with the leadership in Pyongyang,” said Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Bong said Washington would likely need to offer some degree of support for Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, for Taiwan and to back off from criticizing China’s human rights record, to motivate China to take stronger actions against North Korea.
In the Financial Time interview Trump, the former real estate developer who wrote the book The Art of The Deal said, “Trade is the incentive,” the U.S. will use in negotiations with China.
When asked about a "grand bargain" in which China would pressure Pyongyang in return for a U.S. promise to later remove troops from the Korean peninsula, the newspaper quoted Trump as saying: "Well if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you."
The president’s uncompromising tone and comments by officials in his administration have also added to speculation that Trump may support the use of force to resolve the North Korean threat.
When Tillerson was in Seoul recently he said if North Korea elevates “the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action,that option is on the table.”
James Nolt, an international political economy analyst with the World Policy Institute, is concerned hawks in the Trump administration may likely consider launching preemptive military strikes against a possible North Korean ICBM launch to be an acceptable risk to maintain U.S. security.
“I think that is a very plausible action because it doesn’t look necessarily warlike. It looks like a relatively reasonable response to a threat, and yet undoubtedly from North Korea it’s going to look like it’s very provocative,” said Nolt.
Many in South Korea and Japan argue that preemptive military action against North Korea would fail to end the nuclear threat, as many of the country’s nuclear and missile facilities are hidden in fortified underground bunkers. And worse, analysts say, a U.S. attack could draw China and the entire region into a full-scale nuclear war that would kill millions.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report