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(LEAD) (News Focus) Despite tough talk, Trump coming down to usual options on N. Korea

2017/03/09 05:47

(ATTN: UPDATES with US envoy's comments, background in last 5 paras)

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, March 8 (Yonhap) -- When U.S. President Donald Trump swept into the White House, he not only brought with him worldwide concerns about his unconventional approaches to global issues, but also guarded optimism that such an unorthodox leader may be better for solving nagging problems like North Korea.

Such optimism as well as concern that Trump might really choose extreme options like preemptive strikes have grown during the seven weeks since his inauguration as he talked tough and seriously about the threats Pyongyang poses, including a pledge to deal with it "very strongly."

   By all available accounts, however, the Trump administration appears to be coming down to usual options, such as tightening sanctions and bolstering defenses, as its review of strategies to deal with the communist nation is nearing its conclusion.

According to the New York Times, the White House National Security Council held three meetings on North Korea, which is more than on any other foreign policy challenge, and have reached the conclusion that preemptive strikes on the North's nuclear and missile sites won't be possible without starting a war.

Reuters had a similar story that U.S. officials consider pre-emptive military action far too risky, given the danger of igniting a regional war and causing massive casualties in Japan and South Korea and among U.S. troops based in those countries.

For now, a consensus is forming around the option of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure, especially by pressing China to exercise more of its leverage over Pyongyang while beefing up defenses with advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan, the report said.

In the first step to bolster defenses, the U.S. brought into South Korea earlier this week the first elements of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery that the two countries agreed to install in order to defend better against growing missile threats from North Korea.

Experts have long said that there's no simple solution.

"The problem is that while everyone says North Korea is at the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, other than strengthening deterrence, imposing tough sanctions that remove North Korea from the international financial system, there is little the U.S. can do in the near-term that does not risk a war," said Robert Manning, a senior analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Even so, the option of preemptive strikes could gain traction if the North forges ahead with its threat to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the continental U.S., according to reports.

Other options reportedly being considered include adding the North back to the State Department list of states sponsoring terrorism to punish Pyongyang for using a banned chemical weapons agent to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

They could also include escalating cyber attacks on the North, just as the previous administration of Barack Obama carried out covert cyber strikes to remotely manipulate data inside the North's missile systems in an effort to sabotage test-firings.

The strategy review is expected to be completed by the end of this month, sources have said.

Trump, who has pursued an isolationist stance under his "America First" policy, may be unwilling to take the high risks involved in such hardline options as preemptive strikes or regime change.

"This is an administration that is more inclined to be averse to regime change than previous administrations," an unidentified U.S. official was quoted by Reuters as saying. "This administration intends to come up with options based on the cards we are dealt; not try to change the deck entirely, which is what regime change is."

   A main point in Trump's strategy on North Korea will likely be to pressure China to exercise more leverage as the main energy and food provider for North Korea to rein in the provocative regime. Trump has long said that North Korea is China's problem to fix.

In an interview with Reuters last week, Trump said that China can solve the problem "very easily if they want to." He welcomed Beijing's recent decision to suspend coal imports from North Korea, but said China should put more pressure on Pyongyang.

Trump had even raised questions about why the U.S. should adhere to the "one-China" policy of diplomatically recognizing only Beijing, not Taiwan, when China is not helping the U.S. with the North Korea problem, though he later promised to respect the policy.

During a brief meeting with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi last week, Trump was quoted saying, "You gotta work on North Korea."

   Some experts have said Trump could reopen negotiations with the North, pointing out remarks he made during the campaign that there's nothing wrong with talking to the North and he is willing to sit down with the North's leader for negotiations at the White House.

But talks with the North are unlikely to open any time soon.

In a media interview, Trump said it's too late to hold talks with the North because he's very angry at the North's missile launch last month.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also rejected the possibility of resuming talks with the North, even though she said the U.S. is reviewing "all options on the table" as to how to deal with the North.

"I appreciate all of my counterparts wanting to talk about talks and negotiations. We are not dealing with a rational person. If this was any other country, we would be talking about that and it wouldn't be an issue. This is not a rational person who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly," Haley told reporters after an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on North Korea.