The Trump administration has no intention of taking up China on its proposal of a deal between the United States and North Korea. But behind the scenes, the White House is working to come up with an alternative approach that could be ready soon.
The United States and North Korea are risking a “head on collision,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday, calling on both sides to “flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains.” He proposed that the United States and South Korea halt their “Foal Eagle” military exercises in exchange for an end to nuclear and missile testing by the regime of Kim Jong Un. The reciprocal confidence building measure would be meant to lead to direct engagement. Wang also complained about U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea.
But a senior Trump administration official told me that the U.S. government is “underwhelmed” by the Chinese offer and will not use it as a starting point for dealing with the North Korean threat, though the policy is still being formed.
“This isn’t really a new proposal in any way. This is what the Chinese have wanted for a long time,” the official said.
The Trump administration believes that China is still reluctant to use the leverage on the Kim regime that Beijing has available, despite recent steps such as suspending coal imports.“They take steps, but steps that are inadequate to change the regime’s behavior,” the official said. “We’re looking for genuine signs the Chinese are willing to get serious about North Korea.”
The administration has been engaged in a serious policy process to develop a response to a series of North Korean provocations and bizarre acts, including a February missile test of a medium range ballistic missile, the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother in Malaysia using VX nerve agent and this week’s simultaneous launching of four missiles in Japan’s direction.
There have been multiple meetings of the National Security Council’s deputies committee, most recently last week, the senior Trump administration official said. A principals committee meeting, which would include Cabinet members and White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, is in the works.
“We are reevaluating how we are going to handle North Korea going forward,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said Wednesday. “We are making those decisions now. And we will act accordingly.”
The options span a broad range and could be altered or adjusted throughout the process, officials cautioned. But lawmakers and experts said that short of a military strike, which nobody wants to contemplate, there is a limited set of tactics the Trump administration could adopt: increase the pressure, engage, or some combination of the two.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin (Md.) told reporters Wednesday that he too rejects Beijing’s idea that the United States and South Korea should stop military exercises in exchange for Pyongyang adhering to multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. But he wants the United States to talk with the Kim regime.
“It’s not a matter of trading with North Korea for it complying with its international obligations, that’s not what’s at stake,” he said. “But I would welcome an opportunity to have exchanges with North Korea.”
Multiple Trump administration officials said that White House is wary of engaging with Pyongyang unless the Kim regime first changes its behavior. Some officials are pushing for increased sanctions on North Korea as well as secondary sanctions on foreign entities that aid North Korea, which would include Chinese state-connected companies.
Cardin would rather the administration persuade Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang, rather than escalating a dispute with China over the issue by sanctioning Chinese firms.
“If we are going to be effective, we need Chinese cooperation. So I would hope the Trump administration has a strategy for working with China for isolating North Korea’s activity,” he said. “We have a common interest here, and it seems to me through diplomacy we should be able to get China to put the pressure on North Korea.”
The Trump administration reportedly canceled what was set to be a meeting between senior North Korean officials and former U.S. officials this month in New York. The meetings were to be convened by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, led by Donald S. Zagoria. Initially the State Department said it would grant visas to the visiting North Korean officials, but later reversed course.
Joel Wit, a nuclear expert who has participated in several “Track 2″ unofficial dialogues with North Korean officials, told me that simply increasing the pressure on Pyongyang and Beijing would likely not achieve U.S. objectives.
“I don’t think we’re going to get anything out of it, and it’s likely the Chinese will react badly and the North Korean reaction will be more tests,” he said.
A more nuanced strategy might be to prepare the punitive measures while simultaneously reaching out to Pyongyang to offer a direct dialogue, even if it’s done on an unofficial level. By nodding to China’s request, the United States could be in a better position to bring Beijing along if and when harsher measures become absolutely necessary.
“If we make a credible offer to restart negotiations with the North Koreans and they blow us off, that may help us with the Chinese,” said Wit. “If we think we can just push around the Chinese with second degree sanctions and they are going to roll over, that’s not going to happen.”
Of course, the administration’s chances of success in dealing with the North Korean issue would be increased if President Trump filled several empty senior administration positions dealing with Asia, including but not limited to: assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, ambassador to South Korea and ambassador to Japan.
Time is of the essence. The end of the U.S.-South Korea military exercises will be a natural opportunity for both sides to step back from the brink of conflict. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is headed to the region next week. He has a brief window to find a way for both Beijing and Pyongyang to save face while giving Trump enough reason to reengage.
If that opportunity passes, both sides could escalate, the situation could deteriorate further and the options for the Trump administration would only narrow.