Pence Talks Tough on North Korea, but U.S. Stops Short of Drawing Red Line

April 18, 2017


WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence issued a fresh warning to North Korea on Monday not to test America’s resolve. But behind the threatening talk, the White House is taking a more calculated approach, giving the Chinese government time to show whether it is ready to use its influence to curb its erratic, nuclear-armed neighbor.

The disparity between the Trump administration’s blunt public statements to Pyongyang and its growing reliance on Beijing has been put in sharp relief by Mr. Pence’s visit to South Korea, which included a stop at the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea should not test “the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Mr. Pence declared in Seoul, the South Korean capital. Yet in Washington, the White House said President Trump would not draw any red lines with North Korea. And officials expressed hope that China was finally playing a more active role in pressuring the North — a strategy that, if successful, could obviate the need for American military action.

“There’s a lot of economic and political pressure points that I think China can utilize,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing. “We’ve been very encouraged with the direction in which they’re going.”

Mr. Spicer pointed to China’s cutback of coal imports from North Korea as evidence of its new resolve to curb the provocative behavior of its neighbor. But the Chinese government made the decision to stop purchasing North Korean coal before President Xi Jinping of China met with Mr. Trump this month at Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida.

The administration has teed up additional sanctions on North Korea — from grounding its state airline to banning exports of its seafood — depending on its behavior, according to officials briefed on the policy. The White House is also considering targeting Chinese banks that do business with North Korea, these people said. But it is holding off on that step, which would antagonize Beijing, until it sees what China does.

Few of the unilateral sanctions are likely to change North Korea’s behavior, and most would simply be recycled proposals from the Obama administration. So despite insisting it has mothballed the previous administration’s policy of “strategic patience” on North Korea, the Trump administration finds itself in the familiar position of waiting.

Mr. Pence even held out the possibility of opening talks with the North Korean regime, noting that Washington was seeking security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.”

The Trump administration’s mixture of resolve and ambiguity attested to its quandary with North Korea. Though the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, refrained from detonating a nuclear device and suffered another failed missile test this weekend, the United States has not yet found a way around the limited options against the North that constrained his predecessors and put it on the path to becoming a nuclear power.

Mr. Trump essentially has three choices: a military strike that could ignite a full-blown war; pressure on China to impose tougher sanctions to persuade the North to change course, an approach that failed for Barack Obama as president; or a deal that could require significant concessions, with no guarantee that North Korea would fulfill its promises.

The question is whether his apparent willingness to consider both war and a deal may be enough carrot and stick to persuade China to change its approach and apply enough pressure to bring the North to the table.

Talks have long been China’s preference, and now that Mr. Trump seems to be relying on Beijing to an extraordinary degree, Mr. Pence may have been signaling that the United States is open to them. China’s chief objective is to get talks — of any kind — started to avoid conflict so close to home.

War on the peninsula is a nightmare for China that could lead to at least one million casualties, according to some estimates, ravage the Koreas and set back Beijing’s climb to global pre-eminence.


In his most flexible language yet, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, on Friday appealed again for negotiations. “As long as it is a talk, China is willing to support it: either it is formal or informal, one-track or dual-track, bilateral, trilateral or quadrilateral,” Mr. Wang said in Beijing.

On Monday, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Susan Thornton, said that North Korea would need to make a definitive change in its nuclear or missile programs before the United States would consider renewed talks.

The administration wants “a signal that they realize the current status quo is not sustainable,” Ms. Thornton said, although she refused to specify what signal would be acceptable. “Without a signal like that, I think the international community is going to resolve to just ratchet up the pressure.”

The United States has a long history of failed attempts at negotiations with North Korea, reaching back to the Clinton administration and extending through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. But Mr. Trump has made it clear that this problem can no longer be postponed.

Mr. Kim already has enough fissile material for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons, and he may be able to produce sufficient fissile materials — plutonium and highly enriched uranium — for six to seven new weapons a year, according to Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Should the North conduct its sixth nuclear test, it would move closer to having a hydrogen bomb, or a two-stage thermonuclear weapon, Mr. Hecker said, with up to a thousand times more power than the Hiroshima-style weapons Mr. Kim has detonated so far.

With that level of firepower, Mr. Hecker said he worried about a “nuclear catastrophe” on the peninsula resulting from either “escalation of military activities” or poor security around the North’s nuclear arsenal. Talks are needed immediately, he said, just to deal with the threat to Japan and South Korea, both American allies.


The logic for diplomacy should be compelling to the Trump administration, Chinese experts say, even as Washington stakes out a policy of “maximum pressure” and has deployed a naval flotilla led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the coast of the Korean Peninsula, though it is still thousands of miles away.

On Monday, North Korea reacted to the latest warnings from the White House by accusing the Trump administration of applying “gangster-like logic” and promising “tough counteraction” to any military threats.

Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Kim In-ryong, spoke from prepared remarks, four pages long and peppered with familiar statements condemning American “imperialism” and defending “sovereignty.” He referred to his remarks even when trying to answer half a dozen questions posed by reporters.

The closest he came to answering a question was to say that another nuclear test would be carried out “at the time, at the place where our headquarters deemed necessary.”

Gardiner Harris contributed reporting from Washington, and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations. Yufan Huang contributed research from Beijing.