A senior CIA official suggested Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric on North Korea, as well as demonstrations of U.S. military power, are essential to reining in the rogue regime.
The only times China has put pressure on North Korea was when “the Chinese were absolutely convinced the U.S. was ready to go to war on the Peninsula,” Deputy Assistant Director of CIA for Korea Mission Center Yong Suk Lee said at a conference at George Washington University. He argued that it is important America make clear the seriousness of its convictions.
Trump has raised alarms with his statements to reporters, at the United Nations, and on Twitter. The president warned in August that the U.S. will meet North Korean threats with “fire and fury.” In his U.N. General Assembly address, Trump stated that the U.S. will “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacks the U.S. or American allies. He doubled down a few days later, warning that the U.S. will devastate North Korea if the rogue regime forces America’s hand. In recent tweets, the president stressed that there is no point in talking to or playing nice with North Korea.
Trump’s heated rhetoric, which actually prompted an unprecedented personal response from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, has been coupled with joint drills with our allies, including live-fire bombing exercises near the Korean border. The president also recently signed an executive order that further isolates North Korea by putting the world on notice that countries can either do business with the U.S. or North Korea, but not both.
The U.S. response has increased in strength since North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile able to strike the U.S. and the powerful thermonuclear warhead the missile is meant to carry.
The Trump administration has been putting significant pressure on Beijing to rein in its nuclear neighbor, but the Chinese have resisted, only taking action when the U.S. raises the stakes.
Lee identified two incidents where China was forced to get involved. One was in 1976, when North Korea murdered two U.S. Army officers near the DMZ. The second was in 2003, when North Korean fighters intercepted a U.S. aircraft. In response to both issues, he told those in attendance, Beijing put its own strategic goals on the back burner and significantly turned up the pressure on Pyongyang.
“Not just saying that all options are on the table, but demonstrating our clear purpose” needs to continue, he explained. “China still looks at the North Korea problem through the lens of what the U.S. is doing and has been since the Korean War … China’s strategic goal is to frustrate the U.S. and maintain a permanent division of the Korean Peninsula with a very cynical view that they want that buffer zone between the Yalu River and the DMZ,” an ambition very different from that of the U.S., which hopes to stabilize the peninsula.
China will only “put pressure on North Korea is if they are convinced of the seriousness of the U.S. purpose,” Lee added.
“That clarity of the strong purpose statement from the president, clarity of purpose demonstrated on the ground … I think that needs to continue, and that probably actually needs to increase to really demonstrate that strong will, if nothing else, to the Chinese,” the senior official asserted, adding that the U.S. should apply the same pressure in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
As the Trump administration raises the stakes in Northeast Asia, China has actually taken greater steps to pressure Pyongyang, from instructing its banks to stop doing business with North Korea to reducing certain imports and exports to shutting down North Korean companies and joint ventures in China.
There is, however, a great deal more that China can be doing on this particular issue.
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