Trump may have to be patient about North Korea

Authors : Nicole Gaouette and Stephen Collinson, CNN

Posted : April 18, 2017




Washington (CNN)The United States has lost its strategic patience with North Korea. So what’s a had-it-up-to-here superpower to do to stop a pariah nation bent on putting its nuclear weapons on top of a missile that could reach America?

Tough talk, for sure. Lean on China to turn off its life support to its neighbor, for another. But for all the warnings that Trump will fix the showdown with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it’s so far unclear whether at its foundation, his strategy is all that different from previous administrations — which for the

“The era of strategic patience is over,” Vice President Mike Pence told CNN’s Dana Bash during an exclusive interview on a trip to South Korea Monday.

He was referring to the policy that prevailed for much of the Obama administration.

The approach reflected a belief that the US, working closely with the UN and Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, could create enough international pressure to eventually push North Korea to denuclearize — and that this outcome was something everyone could afford to wait for.

Pyongyang recently conducted its fifth nuclear test and is soon expected to conduct a sixth, part of its accelerated drive to develop missiles that can reach the continental US with nuclear weapons small enough to place in the nosecones.

The Trump team has concluded that North Korea’s increasing strides towards producing a deliverable nuclear weapon mean that time has run out for patience and more urgency is required.

“We have now understood that that policy is not one that is prudent to the United States and that’s why you’ve seen stepped up efforts, particularly with respect to China,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday.

The administration’s shift in tone is notable — Pence also told CNN that Pyongyang “would do well not to test Trump’s resolve” — and it’s possible that Trump has pushed Beijing to pressure its unpredictable ally and trade partner. But the fundamental military and strategic equation in Northeast Asia has not changed.

The possible cost of North Korean retaliation for any military action against its nuclear and missile complex — an artillery barrage targeting civilians in Seoul and thousands of US troops south of the border — is just as painful as ever.

And there are still doubts about China’s capacity and willingness to make North Korea bend to Washington’s will, for instance by cutting off fuel, food and investment supplies that sustain Kim’s regime.

So, beyond a stiffening of tone on North Korea, administration officials have also sounded more cautious — and familiar — notes. They are ones that echo strategies of previous administrations in their efforts to rally China and international allies to increase financial pressure on North Korea.

“We’re definitely not seeking conflict or regime change,” Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters Monday.

And she declined to weigh in on whether the White House rhetoric indicated the US was close to a unilateral strike on North Korea, saying that she “can’t telegraph any specific response.”

In fact, she and others in the Trump administration have even referred to the need for patience.

The US has “made a decision — and it’s a decision that’s been made with all of our allies and partners on this issue — 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,” Thornton said. “We just have to stick with it, be patient.”

Another top Trump administration official, deputy national security adviser KT McFarland, also preached patience.

“At this point, we have to wait and see,” McFarland said on Fox News Sunday. “You know, it’s like your kids in the back of a car when you’re on the long trip saying, ‘When are we going to get there?'”

She continued, “In this case, I think we should give the Chinese president some opportunity, some time, as well as pursuing the economic and diplomatic pressures that we have and our allies have that we can bring to bear on North Korea.”

The State Department’s Thornton also told reporters that the administration had to pause to assess whether China would come through as promised and pressure North Korea.

“It’s still quite early,” Thornton said. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive signals for the Chinese, but it takes time.”

The root of White House optimism about China’s evolving role in the North Korea crisis was the summit earlier this month between Trump and Xi in Florida.

Administration officials have told CNN that Trump was struck by the fact that China accounts for some 80% of North Korea’s trade and as such, could have outsized influence on Pyongyang. “President Trump is very hopeful the Chinese will use the leverage they have,” Thornton said.

But there is also the question of how far China will go. Trump is not the first US president to pin hopes on Beijing bringing Pyongyang to heel.

On the one hand, it’s possible that Trump’s pressure, his threats on Twitter and public warnings that he will do something about North Korea and his unpredictable nature — combined with carrots on the economic front — have got Beijing to budge.

Trump, for instance, praised China last week for sending back a fleet of coal ships to North Korea, in line with international sanctions on the Stalinist state’s exports adopted during the Obama administration.

Beijing is determined to avoid any action that could trigger the chaotic downfall of his regime and send refugees fleeing across the border into China.

China also wants to avoid the eventual scenario of a unified Korea, which could produce a US-allied nation on its frontier and change the complexion of Northeast Asia’s security architecture in favor of the United States.

And for all its hawkish rhetoric, the Trump administration is also constrained by the delicate military balance that has prevailed on the Korean peninsula for 60 years. That arrangement makes a US strike designed to disable the North’s missile programs seem unlikely.

“There is no silver bullet,” former Obama administration Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CNN Monday. “This talk about a military solution sounds good but is in reality very, very dangerous.”

Among Republicans, however, the Trump administration’s tough-talk approach has some defenders.

“I think they understand the significance of how a miscue could take us in a very negative direction,” Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN. “At the same time, I think they have appropriately raised the ante here because without doing so, very soon North Korea will be in a place where they can wreak havoc.”

There is another familiar aspect about the Trump administration’s emerging policy toward North Korea, however.

In an interview with Reuters last May, Trump, who casts himself as the ultimate dealmaker, said he would be willing to talk to Kim.

“I would speak to him, I would have no problem speaking to him,” Trump said.

But now, Trump’s team is drawing a hard line on the potential of talk with Pyongyang, a parallel to approaches taken by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

“The conditions are not really ripe for any kind of talks until North Korea shows it is serious about what would be accomplished by undertaking such talks,” Thornton said. “We’re looking for some sort of signal that they’ve realized that the status quo is unsustainable.”

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.