|© Provided by The Hill Wall Street Journal editor leery of labeling false Trump statements as lies|
"North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.," Trump tweeted Monday. "It won't happen!"
The comment comes in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who said Sunday that Pyongyang plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time, according to The New York Times.
North Korea has repeatedly threatened to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, but has never flight-tested an ICBM.
Pyongyang has conducted five nuclear tests in the past decade and conducted more than 20 ballistic missile tests in 2016 alone, according to the Times report.
On Monday, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called on Trump to make North Korea a top priority when he assumes office this month.
"Through a policy of strength, the incoming Trump administration should seize the immediate opportunity to communicate with action to Kim Jong Un as well as our allies that the United States remains committed to standing up to tyrants and ensuring peace and stability around the globe," Gardner wrote in an op-ed published by CNN on Monday.
Boxed into a corner? 4 ways Donald Trump could deal with North Korea
President-elect Donald Trump has made a bold bet on North Korea, saying the secretive country won't test an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.
In his New Year address, North Korea's volatile leader Kim Jong Un said the country was close to doing just that.
"It won't happen," Trump tweeted late Monday.
He went on to repeat his claim that China wasn't doing enough to help the US rein in North Korea and its autocratic leader: "China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!" Trump wrote.
But, if his tweets are any guide, analysts say that Trump has backed himself into a corner on North Korea.
They say Trump needs to reach for a new playbook if he really wants to stop Kim from adding to his arsenal a rocket powerful enough to reach any part of the US.
It boils down to these four options.
1. Pulling strings with China
Since winning the election, Trump has suggested at least twice that China -- North Korea's economic benefactor and only real ally -- isn't pulling its weight when it comes to reining in Kim Jong Un's regime.
But analysts say Beijing has no magic wand and is both unwilling and increasingly unable to influence its unruly neighbor.
Tong Zhao, an associate at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, says that engagement between top level North Korean and Chinese officials has been suspended for quite a while.
"China is frustrated by its inability to push North Korea," said Zhao.
Trump could try and force China to cooperate by undermining its interests elsewhere -- launching a trade war or confronting Beijing over Taiwan or the South China Sea but it would be a high-stakes move, which Zhao says would trigger a "huge negative response."
"From a US-China perspective, it would be a huge waste of (political) capital and energy going after them on North Korea when the US could approach North Korea directly," says John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
When asked about Trump's tweet, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted Tuesday China played an important and positive role in resolving the issue.
The provocative but state-run Global Times newspaper was more critical, saying Trump was "just pandering to irresponsible attitudes."
2. Tightening sanctions
Trump could push China to beef up and implement existing sanctions more harshly but there's no evidence that sanctions have any impact on North Korea's decision making, says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the US-based East Asia Nonproliferation Program.
"It allows the US and our allies to look busy while the North develops an ICBM," he said, referring to the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missile.
Zhao says that tougher sanctions may risk more brinkmanship -- Kim is a man who can't be bought off.
"I don't see how North Korea will soften its position. They see a nuclear deterrent as absolutely crucial to ensure the country's survival. Only once they have it, will they devote resources to the economy."
3. Launching military action
It's still a matter of debate how big a risk North Korea poses militarily and whether it could really put a nuclear warhead on a missile.
It conducted two nuclear tests in 2016, one in January, and another in September, it's most powerful ever. It's also tested a string of missiles, both land and sea launched.
So far, North Korea hasn't developed a delivery system capable of reaching beyond Asia but the fact North Korea remains the only country on Earth to test a nuclear weapon in the 21st century means that any military effort to take out Kim's regime is unimaginably high risk.
North Korea's closest neighbors are the most vulnerable targets to nuclear or conventional weapons, of which Pyongyang has an ample arsenal. South Korea would have to be prepared for potential devastation if Kim were to strike.
"It's not a viable option. We are way past pre-emption," said Delury. There are few other aggressive actions available, he added. North Korea has no diplomats the US could expel.
"North Korea is hard to punish because it has so little to lose. This is why it's different to Iran -- where there was an economy integrated with Europe, a middle class that we could use as leverage."
4. Sitting down with Kim
On the campaign trail, Trump said he would be happy to host Kim for a visit, saying in June "what the hell is wrong with speaking?"
The comment appeared off the cuff and hasn't been repeated but Zhao and Delury both said that engagement was the only option if Trump wanted to make any head way with North Korea.
"I do think it's the way forward. It was a fleeting moment of Trumpian brilliance. He has the right instincts," Delury said.
A US president meeting with the leader of a rogue regime known for its massive human rights abuses would be a hard sell domestically, Delury stressed, but wild card Trump might be capable of pulling it off.
"You could imagine Trump in Pyongyang in a way you couldn't imagine Hillary Clinton," he said.
Zhao said that North Korea had refrained from making any provocations since October and appeared to be willing to engage with a Trump administration.
Trump could potentially be the "American president who prevented North Korea from obtaining the ability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon," Zhao added.
"You only get a big breakthrough when two leaders actually talk to each other."
China Shrugs Off Trump Twitter Jab on North Korea
President-elect Donald Trump chided North Korea and China in two Twitter posts, but Beijing on Tuesday shrugged off the criticism over its role in curbing Pyongyang’s weapons program.
In his first tweet, Mr. Trump remarked Monday on news over the weekend that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un said his government was completing preparations for a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could be the next stage in developing a nuclear weapon that could strike parts of the U.S.
“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.,” the first tweet said. “It won’t happen!”
Less than an hour later, Mr. Trump blamed Beijing for not cracking down on North Korea’s weapons development.
That tweet said: “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”
Mr. Trump has frequently criticized China using his Twitter account, in contrast with Russia, whose leadership he has defended or praised.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said Mr. Trump’s tweets didn’t do much to clarify his past remarks on North Korea policy, which have at times been contradictory. But they did seem to signal where North Korea ranked on his foreign-policy agenda.
“For all the people on his national security team, Trump has just made this a number-one issue,” Mr. Kimball said, adding that Mr. Trump’s tweets revealed an acknowledgment that reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions “cannot simply be outsourced to China.”
Addressing questions about Mr. Trump’s tweets during a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China’s efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear issue “are clear for all to see.”
Mr. Geng pointed to China’s convening of six-nation talks aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program, as well as its support for United Nations sanctions against its ally. He added that any problems in the economic relationship between the U.S. and China should be “properly addressed through dialogue and consultation,” but avoided commenting on whether Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter helped or hindered diplomatic discussions.
“We don’t pay attention to the features of foreign leaders’ behavior. We focus more on their policies,” he said.
Members of China’s U.S.- and North Korea-watching community also largely shrugged off Mr. Trump’s tweets.
Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University, said U.S. frustration with Beijing over North Korea is nothing new. “Trump’s comments regarding China’s perceived passivity on North Korea’s nuclear program are very much in line with the overwhelming consensus view in U.S. diplomatic circles,” said Mr. Shi.
Although Mr. Trump, as a presidential candidate, signaled a more conciliatory approach toward Mr. Kim, including the possibility of a face-to-face meeting, the president-elect will find it difficult to honor this promise without significant concessions from Pyongyang, Mr. Shi said.
Mr. Trump’s hostile tone may damp optimism in Pyongyang about dialogue with the new U.S. administration and it may “adjust its position accordingly,” said Wang Sheng, a professor at China’s Jilin University who studies China-North Korea relations.
The Obama administration condemned North Korea’s statement on weapons development.
“We call on all states to use every available channel and means of influence to make clear to the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and its enablers that launches using ballistic-missile technology are unacceptable, and take steps to show there are consequences to the DPRK’s unlawful conduct,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
The North Korean military has frequently showcased a long-range missile known as the KN-08 but hasn’t yet test-launched the weapon, which experts estimate has a range that could reach the continental U.S.
In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and test-launched dozens of rockets. Several U.S. presidents have tried to stop North Korea from developing and testing nuclear weapons. They have had little success, but Pyongyang’s defiance has left it economically and diplomatically isolated from much of the world, with the exception of China.