TOKYO/WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that efforts by China to rein in North Korea have failed, suggesting he’s weighing new options to deal with a regime that’s vowed to develop nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “At least I know China tried!”
Trump commented the day after a 22-year-old college student died in Ohio following more than a year of imprisonment in North Korea. A State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday the U.S. was considering possible steps including a ban on Americans traveling to the country.
Otto Warmbier, who was held for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner, was returned to the U.S. last week in a coma. Trump said afterward the U.S. should have secured his release sooner, calling his treatment “a disgrace” and the North Korean government “a brutal regime.”
The furor in the U.S. over Warmbier’s death recalls the raw emotions felt after a chemical weapons attack in Syria killed children, prompting Trump to fire cruise missiles at an air base operated by President Bashar Assad’s regime. Yet dropping bombs on Kim Jong Un’s nation — an option the U.S. says remains on the table — is so risky that many analysts see it as implausible because of North Korea’s ability to launch a devastating attack on its neighbors in North Asia.
Warmbier’s death is “an outrage even by North Korean standards,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “It does demand something that’s beyond the typical response. But what do you do? How do you punish North Korea? The instinctive response, such as a travel ban, would not punish the people who killed Otto Warmbier.”
On Tuesday, a U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, said U.S. spy satellites had detected movements recently at North Korea’s nuclear test site near a tunnel entrance, but it was unclear if these were preparations for a new nuclear test — perhaps to coincide with high-level talks between the United States and China in Washington on Wednesday.
Officials and experts have been saying for months that North Korea could conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time, and satellite images periodically show such movements.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer didn’t signal any change in the administration’s approach to North Korea in a briefing Tuesday, saying the U.S. “will continue to apply economic and political pressure and try to continue to work with our allies.” But shortly after Spicer spoke, Trump posted his statement on Twitter.
Trump’s administration talked up the threat of military action earlier this year, sending aircraft carrier strike groups to the region. In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned a war would devastate the region.
Since then, things had appeared to calm down. North Korea has refrained from testing a nuclear device and is yet to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. In turn, U.S. officials focused on diplomatic efforts. The new government in South Korea has repeatedly said it wants to use both sanctions and dialogue to rein Kim in.
In one interview, Trump appeared to empathize with Kim, telling Reuters that taking over North Korea after his father’s death was “a very hard thing to do.” He told Bloomberg in May he’d be open to meeting Kim under the right conditions.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that U.S. diplomats have held discussions for more than a year with North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, focused on freeing American prisoners. Warmbier’s death undercuts any progress from those meetings.
“This makes dealing with Kim Jong Un so toxic,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. “If there are any U.S. preconditions for the talks, the No. 1 priority has to be the release of the three other prisoners.”
Trump’s administration has sought to pressure the 164 nations that have diplomatic ties with North Korea to downgrade or cut them. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told countries last month: “You either support North Korea or you support us.”
The administration has mostly focused on pressuring China, which provides most of North Korea’s food and fuel imports. China has backed the Kim dynasty since the Korean War, in part to keep U.S. troops away from its border.
While China has taken some steps — including halting coal purchases this year after Kim’s estranged half brother was murdered in Malaysia — its efforts haven’t produced a breakthrough so far. Delury, of Yonsei University, said Beijing could apply more pressure by suspending tour groups from North Korea until U.S. prisoners are released.
Despite Trump’s tweet, U.S. officials say they’re not done trying to get China to pressure North Korea. Senior U.S. and Chinese officials will meet in Washington on Wednesday, and one focus will be to target North Korean companies that do business via China, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton told reporters Monday.
Still, China is unlikely to take any action over Warmbier’s death, according to Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“Most likely, China will express concern and regret over the case,” Shi said. “It’s really misconstrued that China is responsible for everything that happens between Washington and Pyongyang.”
Warmbier’s death may complicate things for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office last month, in convincing Trump of the benefits of greater engagement with North Korea. Earlier this month, Moon temporarily halted the installation of a U.S. missile shield pending an environmental-impact assessment.
In an interview with CBS News that aired Tuesday, Moon said he still wants talks with North Korea and hopes to meet Kim by the end of this year. Trump has said no negotiations can occur until Kim halts his nuclear program.
“I believe what Kim Jong Un would want the most is to have a security guarantee for his regime,” Moon said in the interview. “So there is a possibility that Kim Jong Un continues to make the bluff with his nuclear weapons programs. But deep inside he is actually yearning or wanting dialogue. But in the end the only way to find out is to have a dialogue with North Korea.”
Moon, who will meet Trump at the White House on June 29, said he would push for the release of the remaining U.S. prisoners as well as six South Koreans held by Kim’s regime.
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