Just after Thursday’s attack against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, we wrote that
though Russia was the big power most directly challenged by the strike, Putin was perhaps not even the primary intended recipient of the message. The strikes occurred just as President Trump was having dinner with Xi Jinping of China, and, according to AFP, Trump delivered the news to Xi personally. The subtext was unmistakeable: Get serious about North Korea; our recent threats were not idle.
And sure enough, President Donald Trump spoke to South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn on Friday, and on Saturday dispatched the Navy strike group Carl Vinson from Singapore to the coast of the Korean peninsula as a further show of force. For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the talk shows yesterday:
Asked if Friday’s strikes against Syria were a message to North Korea, Tillerson told ABC’s This Week: “The message that any nation can take is, ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.'”
“In terms of North Korea,” he added, “we’ve been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korea peninsula.”
In a separate interview, Tillerson told CBS’ Face the Nation: “President Xi clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.”
Ever since an incredibly detailed NYT story about North Korea’s nuclear program—and the lack of good options for the United States to deter it—was published in early March, we suspected that the Trump Administration’s first focus would be the Hermit Kingdom. The messaging since then, often drowned out here in the United States by a media caterwauling over the Trump Administration’s alleged collusion with Russia, has been unmistakably menacing. A carrier group sent into theater just after a strike in Syria raises the temperature even further.
After what appeared to be a successful meeting at Mar-a-Lago which culminated in Xi inviting President Trump back to China later this year, will China play ball? As Bill Bishop noted last week,
Somewhere on the order of just shy of 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade is with China, so even though we hear sometimes that China’s political influence may have diminished with North Korea, clearly its economic leverage has not. It is considerable.
Beijing doesn’t want a war on its doorstep, but it also really doesn’t want a complete and disorderly collapse in Pyongyang. Not doing something quite visible at this point is tantamount to daring Donald Trump to back down from his escalation. Maybe Xi calculates that with the United States credibly threatening strikes, he can ratchet up sanctions while delivering a message to Kim that he has to negotiate immediately if he hopes to save his skin. And who knows, maybe it works. Though given how reckless and violent the Norks’ insane young ruler has been, odds may not be good that it will.