The growing threat of North Korean nuclear-armed long-range missiles will be a central focus of security talks this week between US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Trump will press Xi on the rogue regime’s growing missile programs and efforts to miniaturize warheads when the two leaders meet at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, April 6 and 7.
Pentagon and White House officials said the president will call on Xi to rein in the rogue state or face unilateral action by the United States, including the possibility of military operations.
The Trump administration recently concluded a major policy review on North Korea and the review is a key driver in the president’s plan to call out Xi on China’s inaction to prevent North Korea from moving ahead with fielding long-range nuclear-tipped missiles.
During the US administration of Barack Obama the US basically farmed out its North Korea policy to Beijing, relying on China to follow through on public statements by Chinese leaders that China also backs international efforts for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
One problem is China’s mutual defense treaty with North Korea. Ties between the two countries’ militaries were described as being “as close as teeth and lips,” a relationship that has not changed despite Beijing’s expressions of concern about North Korean provocations.
North Korea has conducted five underground nuclear tests. Intelligence analysis of the more recent tests in 2016 indicate the holes drilled for placing the test device underground has narrowed – a troubling indication the North Koreans have made progress toward building compact warheads capable of being outfitted atop missiles.
Signs of concern have been voiced by Trump and his senior advisors. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in March that the American policy of strategic patience – waiting patiently for China to help resolve the nuclear problem – is over.
For the Americans and their allies, military force remains the least attractive since the death and destruction of a second Korean war would be horrendous. For Trump, mention of the military option appears to be part of his negotiating strategy.
Trump highlighted the urgency he regards the North Korea threat during a recent interview with the Financial Times, when he declared: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
“China has great influence over North Korea,” Trump said. “And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
Asked about the security aspects of the Trump-Xi summit, a senior US military official said: “Two words: North Korea.”
A senior Trump administration official who briefed reporters on the upcoming summit made clear the North Korea threat remains a high priority for the US. “The clock has now run out, and all options are now on the table for us,” the official said.
The official said the US is weighing secondary sanctions against Chinese companies conducting business with North Korea in violation of existing US and UN sanctions.
Trump will urge Xi to step up coordination with the US and for Beijing to begin “exerting its considerable economic leverage to bring about a peaceful resolution to that problem,” the official said.
Trump’s implicit threat of the use of American military action against North Korea appears aimed at playing on Beijing’s ultimate fear. China has sought throughout the 20-year nuclear dispute with North Korea to limit all solutions to the problem to diplomatic and non-military measures.
Xi is expected to again demand a return to the failed six-nation talks on North Korea that included representatives of the US, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
Trump is expected to take the position that the diplomatic route in the North Korea nuclear problem has not produced any results.
The initial effort to stem the North Korean nuclear program, the 1997 Agreed Framework, was used by Pyongyang to gain access to nuclear technology for its weapons program and then abandon the agreement when the violation was uncovered.
Recent nuclear and missile developments indicate the diplomatic route in dealing with the Kim regime also is failing.
North Korea has been moving ahead full speed with long-range missile programs. Recent tests of a rocket engine were assessed by US intelligence agencies to be designed for a new long-range missile.
North Korea currently possesses a large arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles and is developing a submarine-launched missile.
Its long-range missiles include a limited number of Taepodong-2 ground-based missiles that have been used as space launchers in the past.
The North Koreans also possess a small number of road-mobile KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental-range missiles. The missile has been paraded in military shows in Pyongyang but has yet to be test fired.
The KN-08s are deployed on Chinese-made transporter-erector launchers sold to Pyongyang in violation of UN sanctions.
China has never been held accountable for the strategic missile component transfers. The Chinese have claimed the mobile launchers were exported as lumber haulers – a claim dismissed by security analysts as inaccurate since the tractors are too wide for most logging roads.
The Trump administration’s new policy options have not been disclosed. They are said to include a plan to tighten sanctions by targeting some of the Chinese firms that have been supplying missile-related goods and technology to North Korea.
Covert intelligence operations targeting the missile and nuclear program also are said to be among the new policy options being contemplated.
According to published reports, US intelligence agencies already have conducted covert action to penetrate the North Korean missile supply chain and introduce sabotaged parts. The parts, including fraudulent electronic components, were said to be behind several North Korean missile launch failures over the past several years.
The summit this week between Trump and Xi will be the first opportunity for two of the world’s most important leaders to meet face to face and address one of the most significant flash points for both regional and international security.