22 May 2019
South Koreans watch a television news report on North Korea, at a railway station in Seoul on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
South Koreans watch a television news report on North Korea, at a railway station in Seoul on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Trump has few good options to counter defiant North Korea

Despite his campaign pledge to take a tougher stance on North Korea, US President Donald Trump appears to have few good options to curb its missile and nuclear programs.

Pyongyang said on Monday it had successfully test-fired a new type of medium-to-long-range ballistic missile on Sunday, claiming further advancement in a weapons program it is pursuing in violation of United Nations resolutions, Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s responses under consideration – ranging from additional sanctions to US shows of force to beefed-up missile defense, according to one administration official – do not seem to differ significantly so far from the North Korea playbook followed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, the news agency said.

Even the idea of stepping up pressure on China to rein in a defiant North Korea has been tried – to little avail – by successive administrations.

But Beijing is showing no signs of softening its resistance under a new US president who has bashed them on trade, currency and the contested South China Sea.

More dramatic responses to North Korea’s missile tests would be direct military action or negotiations.

But neither appears to be on the table – the first because it would risk regional war, the latter because it would be seen as rewarding Pyongyang for bad behavior, Reuters said, addind that neither would offer certain success.

North Korea fired the ballistic missile into the sea early on Sunday. Its state-run KCNA news agency said leader Kim Jong Un supervised the test of the Pukguksong-2, a new type of strategic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

A US official said the Trump administration had been expecting a North Korean “proocation” soon after taking office and will consider a full range of options in response, but they would be calibrated to show US resolve while avoiding escalation.

Later, White House adviser Stephen Miller said on the television show “Fox News Sunday” that “we are going to reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific region as part of our strategy to deter and prevent the increasing hostility that we’ve seen in recent years from the North Korean regime”.

The new administration is also likely to step up pressure on China to rein in North Korea, reflecting Trump’s previously stated view that Beijing has not done enough on this front, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“This was no surprise,” the official said. “The North Korean leader likes to draw attention at times like this.”

The latest test comes a day after Trump held a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and also follows Trump’s phone call last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, 100 percent,” Trump told reporters in Palm Beach, Florida, speaking alongside Abe. He made no further comments.

Abe called the launch “absolutely intolerable” and said North Korea must comply with UN Security Council resolutions.

“Trump’s options are limited,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

In January, Trump tweeted “It won’t happen!” after Kim Jong Un said the North was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Trump and his aides are likely to weigh new US sanctions to tighten financial controls, an increase in naval and air assets and joint military exercises in and around the Korean peninsula and accelerated installation of new missile defense systems in South Korea, the US official said.

Trump has also made clear that he believes China has not done enough to use its influence to help rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programs.

The US official told Reuters that Trump would now step up pressure on Beijing, but acknowledged that there were limits to how far China would go, especially in enforcing sanctions, because of its own interests in avoiding destabilization of North Korea.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the new administration might go a step beyond Obama’s approach and focus on imposing “secondary sanctions” on firms and entities that help North Korea’s weapons programs, many of which are in China.

Also unclear is whether Trump’s phone call last week with the Chinese president, in which Trump backed away from his threat to break from America’s long-standing “one China” policy, would engender greater cooperation from Beijing on North Korea.

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