Trump aides shuffle tough hand on North Korea
Posted September 15
The White House is trying to claw back momentum in its test of wills with North Korea, but for now, in the wake of his latest Asia-rattling missile test, it's clear that Kim Jong Un has the upper hand.
Senior Trump administration officials on Friday simultaneously hinted at military action and boasted about a "massive" sanctions package just secured at the UN Security Council to punish the isolated state.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, warned that US military options to end the nuclear crisis were "effective and overwhelming" and slammed North Korea for showing "utter contempt" for its neighbors and the international community.
But the tough warnings could not disguise the fact that Kim had once again swaggered across a US red line and defied the rest of the world, raising new questions about the efficacy of the White House approach.
Since Trump threatened to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea if it kept up its threats, Kim has sent two ballistic missiles over US ally Japan, demonstrating increased range, and set off his sixth, most powerful nuclear test.
Everything the US has tried -- from presidential bluster, to two successful attempts to tighten sanctions in the UN, to calling on China and Russia to bring Pyongyang to heel, has failed to change the fundamental equation in the crisis.
North Korea is quickly forging ahead with its mission to put a nuclear device on a long-range missile that could reach the United States, a capability that would fundamentally alter the delicate nuclear balance of power in the world.
The key question now is whether that goal will be reached before new economic punishments ratified by the Security Council this week, or follow-on efforts, create sufficient pressure to change Kim's calculations.
Administration officials, under increasing pressure in Washington to show results, are pleading for room for the strategy to work, while admitting that the time needed for a breakthrough may not exist.
US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley appeared in the White House Briefing Room Friday to insist that a sanctions program that was described earlier this week by Trump as "not a big deal" was in fact a significant step forward.
She repeatedly argued that the new measures had cut 30% of North Korean oil supplies and 90% of its exports and would impose a painful cost.
"We have strangled their economic situation," she said, hailing a "massive sanctions" effort designed to force Pyongyang's hand.
"That's going to take a little bit of time, but it has already started to take effect," she said.
Beside Haley, national security adviser H.R. McMaster also implied that sanctions should not be judged overnight. "We need time, obviously for any strategy to work. It is a sound approach to a very difficult problem and we will see if it succeeds."
But while talking up the new sanctions, both McMaster and Haley stressed that they were not the only option.
The UN envoy said she had "no problem kicking it to" Defense Secretary James Mattis.
McMaster took pains to counter the narrative that the use of force by the US to solve the North Korea nuclear showdown is unthinkable, because of possibly horrendous reprisal attacks against Seoul by the North.
"For those who have said and have been commenting about the lack of a military option, there is a military option," he said.
The choreographed show of resolve by McMaster and Haley, appeared to have multiple audiences, including Kim and leaders in Beijing and Moscow and likely paved the way for robust rhetoric toward Pyongyang by the President at the UN General Assembly next week.
Yet the North's escalating defiance is rapidly increasing pressure on the administration in Washington as well as in Asia.
"What we are seeing here is a sustained effort by Kim Jong Un to take the initiative and have momentum," former Obama administration deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken told CNN on Friday.
Blinken praised Trump's team for securing Chinese and Russian support on two sets of fresh UN Security Council sanctions, but warned there was a need for sustained international pressure on Pyongyang. The two nations are vital to any effort to pressure North Korea, since China supplies most of the country's oil and Russian companies are the largest employers of North Korean forced laborers whose salaries mostly swell Pyongyang's revenues.
The McMaster and Haley show may also have been partly designed to send a message to Congress, where there is increasing bipartisan impatience at the administration's failure to impose more direct pressure on China to act.
"The sanctions aren't having an impact upon the North Koreans, so we should right now move to the final sanctions," Democratic Sen. Ed Markey told CNN's Kate Bolduan Friday.
"We should move to what it is that we think is going to work, if anything can work, to bring the North Koreans to the table."
Markey, voicing impatience other senior Republicans and Democrats have expressed to the White House privately, called for the administration to make clear to China and Russia that any one entity that does business with North Korea should be barred from the global financial system.
"They're going to have to square up their economic actions with what they say is their strategic objectives as well," Markey said.
The administration has so far largely stopped short of sanctioning Chinese banks and businesses that do transactions with North Korea. Such a move would trigger widespread economic consequences and could shake US-China relations ahead of Trump's expected visit to Beijing in November.
If only the current sanctions are properly enforced, they could have serious implications for Pyongyang in restricting its seafood and textile imports for example, although there is a thriving cross border black market.
But that will take time.
And this administration, like its predecessors, is learning, that repeated calls on China to do more to pressure its supposed ally often do not result in the kind of actions Washington wants.
Haley for example had tried to get veto-wielding China and Russia to sign on to even tougher UN sanctions this week -- that included an asset ban directly targeting Kim himself.
For all its rhetoric and pressure, Washington has not yet convinced either China or North Korea that their strategic priorities have changed.
China still appears wedded to its belief that harsher sanctions could topple Kim's regime and result in a unified Korea allied with the US that would reshape the strategic picture in northeast Asia.
Kim's race to put a nuclear package onto a long-range missile suggests that he has concluded his state's survival depends on acquiring his own ultimate deterrent.
And so far, Trump administration policy has failed to change either perspective.