US warship deployment shows Donald Trump has few options on North Korea

Pyongyang cites 'reckless moves' by the US, including deploying a Navy strike force to waters around the Korean peninsula, as reason for it to be 'ready for war'.
A handout photo from the US Navy shows the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as it transits the South China Sea, April 8, 2017.
A handout photo from the US Navy shows the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as it transits the South China Sea, April 8, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump's deployment of an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula has raised tensions across East Asia. But the show of US force conceals a lack of better options for dealing with the provocations of the rogue government in North Korea.

China's President Xi Jinping did not make any public commitment to tighten the pressure on North Korea during his meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, last week with Trump. Even privately, officials said, he was circumspect.

And an attack on North Korea carries far greater risk than the missile strike Trump ordered last week to punish President Bashar Assad of Syria for his deadly chemical weapons attack.

That leaves the White House in a bind on a security issue that Trump has described as the most pressing of his presidency. Trump warned before the meeting with Xi that the United States would act alone against North Korea if China did not join his pressure campaign.

A senior administration official expressed hope that the productive tone of the meeting would eventually lead to further Chinese actions.

But Trump's missile strike, which came while he and Xi were having dinner, could play both ways: Administration officials said it would convince the Chinese leader of Trump's resolve, while some experts said it would reinforce fears in Beijing that he is erratic and unpredictable.

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 USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea twice to intimidate Kim's father Kim Jong Il, without persuading him to change his behaviour.

"This is déjà vu all over again," said Jeffrey A. Bader, who advised Obama on China. "They've signalled a new approach, but they're discovering that the new approaches are not particularly attractive."

The White House is likely to pursue secondary sanctions, which target Chinese firms and banks that help North Korea earn foreign currency and finance its weapons programmes.

The question is whether the Chinese government will cooperate with the effort, and if it does not, whether Trump will impose the sanctions unilaterally, even at the risk of rupturing the relationship between Washington and Beijing.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Xi agreed with 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 towards North Korea among the Chinese elite, Bader said, though it has not yet filtered into the government's policy.

CHINA ON NORTH KOREA

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 programme, met his South Korean counterpart, Kim Hong Kyun, in Seoul to discuss what to do about the North's advancing nuclear and missile programmes.

Kim said he and Wu did not discuss a possible US military strike against North Korea.

US MILITARY OPTION

In recent weeks, Trump's aides warned that they were not ruling out "military options". Over the weekend, Tillerson said the US 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 Chollet, a former assistant defense secretary for international security affairs.

The risk of escalation in Syria was lower, Chollet said, because Assad is weaker than 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 US analysts argue that 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 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 US predictability and reliability. The only time I've ever seen the Chinese worried is when they're not sure what the US is going to do."

US 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.