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Opinion Trump’s North Korea policy is ‘maximum pressure’ but not ‘regime change’

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un attends a target-striking contest by the Korean People’s Army. (Reuters)
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Despite heated rhetoric about potential military conflict, the Trump administration’s official policy on North Korea is not aimed at regime change, but rather seeks to impose “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang in the hopes of returning to negotiations to get rid of its growing nuclear arsenal. That’s the result of a comprehensive policy review the Trump White House completed this month.

Tensions couldn’t be higher as the regime of Kim Jong Un signals that it may soon detonate its sixth nuclear bomb and North Korean officials say they are ready to “go to war” if provoked by the United States. The United States has moved significant military assets into the region, and officials are even signaling that the United States is capable of launching a preemptive strike.

But behind the scenes, the Trump administration has completed a two-month comprehensive review of the North Korea policy that was approved by all of the top National Security Council officials this month, a senior White House official who has read the policy confirmed to me.

The policy calls for “maximum pressure” against the North Korean regime to try to halt its illicit missile and nuclear activity, through sanctions and other diplomatic means. The policy does not call for “regime change” but in facts calls for engagement with the North Korea regime, if and when it changes its behavior.

“The administration’s priority is to end the threat of a North Korean regime armed with nuclear weapons. That is our goal,” the senior White House official said. “The national security interest of the United States in this case is the threat of the regime to us and our allies in the region and so our focus is on that. If and when regime change comes to the northern part of the peninsula, we’ll deal with that then, but for now we are focused on the shorter-term threat.”

Top administration officials have begun briefing experts on the new policy review, including at a private dinner Thursday in Washington featuring a top administration North Korea policy official who talked about the new approach.

The senior White House official confirmed to me that the goal of the policy is “denuclearization,” not simply a halt or freeze of some of North Korea’s tests or other illegal activities. The policy provides for the potential of secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and banks that aid the North Korean regime, but not upfront. First, China is offered the opportunity to voluntarily increase its own pressure on North Korea.

President Trump tweeted this point Thursday, saying: ”I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.”

There are already some signs that the Chinese government is stepping up its pressure on Kim. On Wednesday, the Global Times, a Chinese media organ loosely connected to the Communist Party leadership, threatened that Beijing could severely limit oil shipments to North Korea if its does not curtail its nuclear mischief. An April 5 Global Times editorial seemed to lay out Chinese interests if the Kim regime were to fall, such as the need to contain instability and Beijing’s opposition to a “hostile regime” on its border.

There are several unanswered questions about the Trump administration’s new North Korea policy. What assurances is the United States prepared to give China about what would happen if the Kim regime does collapse? What exactly are the steps Pyongyang must take before engagement becomes viable? In what form will that engagement materialize? Are key allies such as Japan and South Korea on board?

Vice President Pence will discuss the North Korean situation with leaders in Seoul and Tokyo when he travels to both Asian capitals next week. Senior administration officials who briefed reporters about the trip on background Thursday said that they expected North Korea to come up in every discussion Pence has while in northeast Asia.

Kim Jong Un has tested nuclear weapons at an unprecedented rate. Here's how his regime is able to funnel billions of dollars into its nuclear program. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The administration is prepared to respond to another North Korean nuclear test and has a range of options at its disposal, the officials said, adding that nothing is off the table but that the United States won’t telegraph its response in advance.

“Do we anticipate it? Possibly. But are there options already developed? Absolutely,” one senior administration official said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a new surprise for us. He continues to develop this program. He continues to launch missiles into the Sea of Japan. So with that regime it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ … So we’re well prepared to counter that.”