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Move of U.S. Warships Shows Trump Has Few Options on North Korea

The New York Times logo The New York Times 11/04/2017 MARK LANDLER and CHOE SANG-HUN

President Trump’s deployment of an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula has raised tensions across East Asia. But the show of American 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, Fla., last week with President Trump. Even privately, officials said, he was circumspect. And an attack on North Korea carries far greater risk than the missile strike that Mr. Trump ordered last week to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for his deadly chemical weapons attack.

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That leaves the White House in a bind on a security issue that Mr. Trump has described as the most pressing of his presidency. Mr. Trump warned before the meeting with Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s missile strike, which came while he and Mr. Xi were having dinner, could play both ways: Administration officials said it would convince the Chinese leader of Mr. 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 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 United States aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in Busan, South Korea, in March. © Jo Jung-Ho/Yonhap, via Associated Press The United States aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in Busan, South Korea, in March. 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 stop 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 Sunday, North Korea said Mr. Trump’s missile strikes against Syria proved that nuclear weapons were justified to protect the country against the Americans.

“Some forces are loudmouthed that the recent U.S. military attack on Syria is an action of ‘warning,’” to North Korea, “but the latter is not frightened at such a threat,” the Korean Central News Agency quoted a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry as saying.

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