Ahead of a major summit with Xi Jinping this week, President Trump issued what at first blush seemed to be a very stark threat to North Korea in a much-discussed interview in the Financial Times over the weekend:
“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Mr Trump said in the Oval Office. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
But he made clear that he would deal with North Korea with or without China’s help. Asked if he would consider a “grand bargain” — where China pressures Pyongyang in exchange for a guarantee that the US would later remove troops from the Korean peninsula — Mr Trump said: “Well if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”
President Trump ordered a policy review on North Korea shortly after taking office, in no small part due to President Obama’s candid, and apparently alarming, advice during the transition period. But even before the review was done, the Trump Administration has sought to convey that they are operating with a brand new rulebook. A jarringly apocalyptic piece in the New York Times a few weeks back, detailing the progress of Pyongyang’s nuke program and the United States’ repeated failures to get a handle on it, a few weeks back seemed to foreshadow this administration’s rhetorical escalation.
Still, we’ve not quite yet left Kansas, Toto. Past administrations have also complained about Chinese intransigence, and weighed a more extensive sanctions regime—just like Trump’s recently-completed policy review reportedly recommends. This time around, however, the stakes are higher. Recent reports suggest that Pyongyang is developing thermonuclear weapons, even as it steadily marches toward building an ICBM capable of delivering it to California. For all their bluster, past U.S. administrations have been able to kick the can down the road. Donald Trump may not have that luxury.