It’s not a sonic boom or bunker buster Pyongyang should most fear from the Trump administration. It’s the sound of cash registers falling silent, and doors to the outside world shutting, as the U.S. works to convince China and other allies to cut off the oil, access to money and perhaps even communication links to the outside world.
That was the word from Trump administration officials Wednesday, explaining a multipronged strategy to defang Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program to lawmakers at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Administration officials made clear that open military confrontation or toppling the Kim regime are the least desirable of all possible options—even as China appeared to hint that it wouldn’t oppose certain American military measures against Pyongyang.
“We want to solve this through political or economic measures,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “There are no good military options.” The official said any unilateral strike would likely lead to a North Korean counter-strike on U.S. allies South Korea and Japan—both within artillery or missile range of North Korea—as well as threatening tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Pacific.
“We want to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees,” said Adm. Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. He repeated the administration mantra that “all options are on the table,” but the tone had decidedly shifted from President Donald Trump’s earlier provocative tweets.
The U.S. might lobby to put North Korea back on the list as a state sponsor of terror as one of many options to isolate the defiant Asian nation. It had been removed in 2008 under previous negotiations with the Bush administration.
“It’s clear we are in a phase where unless North Korea takes a more provocative action, attacks our allies, attacks us directly, this is a diplomatic phase,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, of Delaware, told The Daily Beast outside the White House after the meeting. “We are making military preparations to defend our allies and ourselves, but we are focused on clarifying to the world how destabilizing North Korea’s actions are.”
Preparations include sending a U.S. carrier strike group and speeding up the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea. Admiral Harris told lawmakers North Korea’s progress on building missiles that could reach the continental United States could in the near term spell the need for more missile defenses for Hawaii to supplement its ground-based missile defenses in the U.S..
But the across-the-administration tone was markedly different from more bombastic comments in recent weeks, when Trump said North Korea has “gotta behave" and tweeted that North Korea is “looking for trouble.” Those taunts—combined with the military might the U.S. moved into the region—led Pyongyang to threaten to sink the USS Carl Vinson and even to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
That had diplomats and Asia analysts alike worried that the tensions would lead someone to miscalculate, triggering armed confrontation.
But Trump officials believe that risk is receding as China slowly makes good on its promise to increase economic pressure on North Korea. The senior administration official Wednesday cited “early indications of China doing a better job enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, as well as…in the Chinese press and other areas, a really clear effort to communicate to North Korea that its behavior provocative behavior—the nuclear tests and the missile tests, the existence of these programs—can’t be tolerated.”
“I think we’re going to suspend judgement… and see how this develops in the coming days and months,” the official said. All the administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the evolving administration response to North Korea.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we are seeing early signs that China is helping and cooperating at reining in North Korea,” agreed Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican.
One of those warnings from Beijing to Pyongyang came in the form of an op-ed in Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, which suggested that China may not come to North Korea’s aid if it continues to press ahead with nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests.
“If Pyongyang’s unwavering pursuit of its nuclear program continues and Washington launches a military attack on North Korea’s nuclear facilities as a result, Beijing should oppose the move by diplomatic channels, rather than get involved through military action,” the newspaper said.
“The Chinese have refused to talk about the day after,” said Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation. “But through this, they seem to be saying to Pyongyang, if you guys insist on pushing a nuclear program, we may not come to your rescue. It’s an interesting little trial balloon.”
The article also warns that if the U.S. and South Korea cross the demilitarized zone, Beijing won’t let them overthrow the regime—a pointed warning to Washington.
“It’s one thing to take down the nuclear program…but this is not a license to change the regime like you guys did in Libya,” Cheng said.
Another Global Times article warned China might cut off oil supplies to North Korea—and they are the sole exporter to the besieged nation.
China has already taken some steps—slowly shutting down the amount of coal it imports from North Korea, though in a stop-start way that had some Asia watchers initially skeptical.
China took in a surge of coal supplies in December 2016, but then declared a moratorium on imports for 2017, said Yun Sun, a fellow with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. China still took delivery of some coal supplies in the first two months of this year, though China didn’t go above what was allowed by a November U.N. resolution toughening sanctions on the regime, she noted at the Korean-focused website 38 North. It did allow several North Korean ships laden with coal to dock for “humanitarian reasons,” she said, but there was no satellite or other evidence she has seen that the coal was unloaded, and as of March, it appears all coal deliveries to China have stopped.
“I think they are being serious about it. They want to cooperate with the Trump administration…and the Chinese do want to punish North Korea,” she said.
Cutting off trade completely will be difficult because the rural areas of China bordering North Korea are poor, and have benefited from North Korean trade, according to Dr. John Park, director of the Korean Working Group at Harvard Kennedy School. “The Chinese provinces near the border with North Korea are like the Arkansas and Mississippi of China—so the coal trade and other types of low level exchanges have been a big stimulus.”
He was skeptical that China would follow through on measures that might spell an economic hit for locals, and warned to watch for a shell game of sorts. “In 2003, China turned off the oil to North Korea for three days. They told (President George W.) Bush, ‘look, we’re doing something.’ To North Korea, they said ‘we’re having technical difficulties in the north oil fields and we’ll bump up production when we’ve got it fixed.’”
Former Obama administration official Michael H. Fuchs said China had already turned tough on North Korea when it voted for U.N. Security Council sanctions against the regime in March last year, likely spurred by Kim Jong Un’s reckless behavior—but it’s not clear how far Beijing will go.
“China is clearly also trying to play to Trump,” said Fuchs, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It’s hard to tell whether they are genuinely afraid of Trump and what he might do and whether they are confident they can play the U.S. president. Articles in Chinese media and comments from Chinese officials are intended to portray a China that wants to work together is a big challenge, but it’s not clear how much is it actually doing things it says it is going to do.”
There are other options the U.S. could pressure China to take—like cutting off the major communications links between North Korea and the outside world, or sanctioning the Chinese banks that do business with Pyongyang.
The Bush administration did that briefly to great effect, convincing Macau banking authorities to essentially nationalize the private Banco Delta Asia in 2005, closing Kim Jong Il’s accounts. But Pyongyang has since learned from that, and now conducts most of its banking with small Chinese banks that aren’t subject to international control. So it would be up to Beijing to put the financial hurt on Pyongyang.
“We can pose to China the choice—do you value the millions of dollars of trade you have with North Korea or the billions you have with the rest of the world,” Cheng said, something he thinks Trump may have been getting at when he tweeted: ‘Why should I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korea problem?’
“The stick that is kept silent but displayed can often be as influential as the carrot that is publicly proffered,” Cheng said. In other words, “If you don’t help us, there are consequences.”