Trump Raised Prospect of a North Korea Strike with U.N. Envoys, But Said He Wants to Avoid a Fight
The White House warning is aimed at prodding China into reining in its neighbor’s nuclear ambitions.
President Donald Trump raised the specter of a military confrontation with North Korea during a luncheon with U.N. Security Council ambassadors on Monday, but insisted that he favors a peaceful resolution to a decades-long standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, according to two Security Council diplomats.
The warning was aimed at bolstering the administration’s diplomatic efforts to persuade the council’s 14 other members, particularly China, to firmly enforce long-flouted U.N. sanctions against the hermetic regime.
To that end, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make his debut visit Friday to U.N. headquarters, where he will seek to rally foreign governments to aggressively implement existing U.N. sanctions and to back further penalties against North Korea if it conducts another ballistic missile or nuclear weapons test.
The visit comes as Trump and his top national security advisors are carrying out a fevered campaign to persuade American lawmakers and foreign powers, principally China, to take a tougher stand against North Korea before it can develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the United States.
In a White House luncheon on Monday with envoys from the U.N. Security Council’s 14 other countries, including China’s U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, Trump made it clear that, while the United States preferred a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis, military force remained a real option, according to a Security Council diplomat. “If you were anxious about the United States taking tough action … you might be more anxious than you were before” the luncheon, the diplomat said.
“He was very clear about he will be the president that will deal with this,” the diplomat said, noting that Trump sharply criticized Obama and his predecessors for failing to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “It was left hanging that there clearly would be a military solution if needed.”
But the president’s tough talk was not matched with any proposals to penalize Pyongyang. The council is not expected to issue any statements or resolutions Friday sanctioning North Korea.
“I think it was more bluster,” a second Security Council diplomat said about Trump’s warning of military action. “We didn’t hear anything specific or serious on the military side.” The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is “nothing in the pipeline” in terms of negotiations on a new sanctions resolution.
Despite Trump’s threats, the current strategy resembles the approach taken by former President Barack Obama: persuading states to enforce existing sanctions on North Korea and ratcheting up pressure on China to tighten its economic noose around North Korea.
During a follow-up meeting with the council and Trump’s national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, turned to her Chinese counterpart, Liu, and said “something like, ‘We look to you to solve this for us,’” according to the council member.
The Trump administration is gambling that the president’s missile attack this month against Syria will send a strong signal to North Korea and China that the United States is prepared to order military action to stop Pyongyang’s program. But the president has established a pattern of issuing stern threats, including campaign pledges to crack down on trade partners, as a starting point for negotiations.
Trump’s credibility has been harmed in the region after he wrongly claimed this month that an American “armada” was headed toward North Korea in a show of strength. The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group was actually heading in the other direction, toward Australia.
It remained unlikely that North Korea would heed Washington’s warnings. For more than a decade, Pyongyang has defied repeated demands by the Security Council to halt tests of nuclear explosives and ballistic missiles. Last year, North Korea conducted two nuclear and 24 ballistic missile tests.
In Washington, Trump’s chief national security advisors Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying the president’s strategy “aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our Allies and regional partners.”
But White House officials privately acknowledge that the outcome of elections in South Korea next month could undermine the U.S. strategy before it has time to gain traction. The front-runner in the country’s May 9 presidential vote is a former human rights lawyer, Moon Jae-in, who has supported a less confrontational policy on Pyongyang and promised to reopen an industrial complex managed with the North Koreans. If Moon prevails as polls predict, “that could really create a problem,” an administration official told Foreign Policy.
Still, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said Thursday that Trump’s approach differed from the previous administration because he was tackling the problem with greater urgency and devoting more resources to it.
The White House has “made clear that this is the No. 1 national security priority for the administration,” Thornton said at a Washington event organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The administration was working with other foreign partners to create a “burst of pressure” on the North, she said, “so that we can test this hypothesis. Is there pressure we can bring to bear that’s going to change the calculus?”
In New York, Haley distributed a so-called concept note to the Security Council delegation, urging states to use the Tillerson meeting “to discuss ways to maximize the impact of existing Security Council measures and show their resolve to respond to further provocations with significant new measures.”
It remained unclear what new measures the United States might be entertaining, or whether China could be persuaded to back them. In past negotiations, the United States has pressed for restrictions on oil imports and Pyongyang’s lucrative export of North Korean laborers.
The United States has been exploring steps in closed-door meetings with the Chinese, according to council diplomats. But the talks appear to be inconclusive. U.S. officials insisted that China has begun to see North Korea as a threat to its interests and security. They cited the attendance of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Friday’s meeting as a sign of how seriously China is taking U.S. concerns. “I think that is a big shift,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.
China, the official said, has stepped up enforcement of sanctions, blocking the export of North Korean coal, and turning up the volume on their public denunciations of China. There is “a willingness by China to take on this problem in new ways,” the official said, adding, “We ought to suspend judgment until we see how this develops.”
The White House appears to be betting that its warnings about retaining military “options” against North Korea could alarm China and prompt it to move decisively against Pyongyang. “The only times we’ve ever seen the Chinese act with alacrity is when we increase risk and uncertainty about U.S. intentions,” said one senior congressional aide.
With rhetoric escalating and both sides testing each other’s resolve, experts worry that the risks of a volatile miscalculation are rising. If the United States takes military action to derail North Korea’s bid for nuclear-armed missiles, Pyongyang could retaliate against South Korea with its vast array of artillery and rockets dug in along the border. Senior U.S. military officers say every scenario looking at a clash with the North assumes significant civilian and troop casualties, particularly in the northern part of the capital of Seoul, which lies just 35 miles from up to 12,000 artillery pieces on the North Korean border.
In New York, Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said his government stood by the United States in tackling the threat. “The world cannot stand idly by,” he said. “If you look at the threat, the combination of intercontinental ballistic missile ability and nuclear capability, that is a threat that the world cannot ignore.”
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch