Flexing America’s military muscle alone is not likely to deter North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, from testing nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles. Former President Barack Obama ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington into the Yellow Sea twice to intimidate Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, without persuading him to change his behavior.
“This is déjà vu all over again,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, who advised Mr. Obama on China. “They’ve signaled a new approach, but they’re discovering that the new approaches are not particularly attractive.”
The White House is likely to pursue so-called secondary sanctions, which target Chinese firms and banks that help North Korea earn foreign currency and finance its weapons programs. The question is whether the Chinese government will cooperate with the effort, and if it does not, whether Mr. Trump will impose the sanctions unilaterally, even at the risk of rupturing the relationship between Washington and Beijing.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Mr. Xi agreed with Mr. Trump that “the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.” There is also evidence of a tougher line toward North Korea among the Chinese elite, Mr. Bader said, though it has not yet filtered into the government’s policy.
China has taken modest steps to increase the pressure. It agreed with South Korea on Monday to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea if it carries out nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests, a senior South Korean diplomat said. The announcement seemed intended to dissuade North Korea from conducting a test to mark a national holiday this week.
On Monday, Wu Dawei, the top Chinese envoy for international efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, met with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Hong-kyun, in Seoul, the South’s capital, to discuss what to do about the North’s advancing nuclear and missile programs.
Mr. Kim said he and Mr. Wu did not discuss a possible American military strike against North Korea.
In recent weeks, Mr. Trump’s aides warned that they were not ruling out “military options.” Over the weekend, Mr. Tillerson said the American strike against Syria was a signal to other countries that “a response is likely to be undertaken” if they pose a danger.
Analysts and officials in South Korea fear that a pre-emptive military attack against North Korea — even one limited to taking out nuclear and missile bases — could set off a catastrophic retaliation and a full-scale war. Seoul lies within range of North Korean artillery and rockets amassed along the border.
Military planners in the Pentagon share those fears. “While the military is very focused on maintaining a strong deterrence posture on the peninsula, it is acutely aware of the dangers of escalation,” said Derek H. Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
The risk of escalation in Syria was lower, Mr. Chollet said, because Mr. Assad is weaker than Mr. Kim and there was less concern about Syria’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands.
“A nuclear-armed North Korea is a different story,” he said.
In South Korea, the prospect of a pre-emptive strike has long been dismissed as unrealistic. But “under President Trump, we are afraid that that may not necessarily be so anymore,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in South Korea.
Some American analysts argue that Mr. Trump’s unpredictability could give him leverage with the Chinese. Michael J. Green, an Asia adviser to President George W, Bush, recalled negotiating with China and North Korea when Mr. Bush began his invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Chinese noticeably shifted their tone, he said, and put more pressure on the North Koreans.
“Everybody prices in North Korean unpredictability,” said Victor D. Cha, who also worked on Asia during the Bush administration. “Most of the other players price in U.S. predictability and reliability. The only time I’ve ever seen the Chinese worried is when they’re not sure what the U.S. is going to do.”
American allies in the region offered general support for deterrence, but not necessarily pre-emptive action. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he supported the “resolve” of the United States in stopping Syria from using chemical weapons. But he did not directly comment on the move of the aircraft carrier to the region.
To South Koreans, Mr. Trump’s order to launch a barrage of missiles on Syria demonstrated his willingness to use military means against an adversary deemed particularly egregious. And the order to the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to return to waters near the Korean Peninsula appeared unusual because it conducted exercises in the area last month.
Moon Sang-gyun, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said the strike group was moving back to deter North Korean provocations in coming weeks. North Korea observes major anniversaries this month, including the April 15 birthday of its founder, Kim Il-sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un, raising fears that it might carry out celebratory weapons tests.
On Tuesday, North Korea lashed out at the United States over the deployment of the aircraft carrier. The state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying: “We will hold the U.S. wholly accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its outrageous actions.”
Continue reading the main story