President Trump warned Thursday that North Korea could face “some pretty severe” consequences after its defiant test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but Washington also confronted firm opposition from Russia and China over any possible response.
Trump did not specify potential U.S.-directed punishment for North Korea, which on Tuesday launched a missile that experts say had a range capable of reaching Alaska. Yet efforts to find consensus among world powers appeared to hit a wall — sharply limiting Trump’s options.
New sanctions would have little effect unless backed by China, which is the North’s financial lifeline. Russia also has rejected further economic pressures on the regime of Kim Jung Un.
With key players at odds, Trump must now find a way forward as he heads into Group of 20 meetings in Germany later Thursday. In Germany, Trump is expected to have his second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his first with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
In Warsaw, Trump said the United States was considering “some pretty severe things” in response to what he called “very, very bad behavior” from the North, though he did not mention any specific plans.
“Something will have to be done about it,” he said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday at the Pentagon that the ICBM launch alone does not bring the United States closer to war with North Korea. The United States is leading the way on diplomatic and economic efforts to change Pyongyang’s behavior, he said, according to journalists there when he spoke.
“I do not believe this capability brings us closer to war,” Mattis told reporters, according to Stars and Stripes. “Diplomacy has not failed. It is our self-restraint that has prevented war . . . Our self-restraint holds.”
Pentagon officials this week have sought to underscore that the ICBM threat posed by North Korea is “nascent,” and that Pyongyang still has a long way to go in terms of understanding the trajectory of the missiles and reentry before they could hit North America.
While the Trump administration has said that all options are on the table to counter North Korea, Mattis has previously warned that an armed conflict would include “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetime,” citing the threat posed by hundreds of North Korean rocket launchers and artillery pieces aimed at Seoul.
The Pentagon and State Department have not taken steps that would indicate U.S. officials are seriously concerned the situation is an immediate crisis, such as sending home the families of U.S. service members and State Department employees stationed in South Korea.
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused China and Russia of “holding the hands” of the North Korean leader Kim.
Haley chided Beijing and Moscow for not supporting a resolution that would tighten sanctions and hinted that the United States would consider the use of force.
“One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces,” she said. “We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.”
Her words were met with criticism from Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who called stricter sanctions “not acceptable” and military action “inadmissible.”
At a daily briefing in Beijing on Thursday, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry backed him up, calling for calm in response to U.S. remarks.
After his first meeting with Xi in April, Trump came out confident that China was on his side and would pressure Pyongyang to stop building weapons. That plan, as he recently tweeted, “has not worked out.”
In recent weeks, Trump has stepped up his criticism of China. “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40 percent in the first quarter,” he tweeted Wednesday, without noting the source of the statistic. “So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”
But U.S. tough talk seems unlikely to bring Beijing on side, experts said.
The U.S. response to the ICBM test so far has encompassed joint military exercises with the South Koreans, calls for stricter sanctions on those doing business with North Korea and high-level warnings of military action — all of which are at odds with Chinese plans.
It’s not that China does not care about the North Korean threat — it does — but that it sees it differently, analysts said.
Beijing and Pyongyang were once communist brothers-in-arms at war with American forces. Those days are long gone, but the memory of the 1950-1953 Korean War looms large.
The fact that thousands of U.S. soldiers are still stationed in South Korea is a sore point for Beijing, which would rather not have the American military at their doorstep. The Chinese side often sees U.S. moves in South Korea, from joint exercises to missile defense as maneuvers designed to counter Chinese military might.
Indeed, the “double suspension” plan pitched by China and Russia in the wake of the ICBM test calls for the United States and South Korea to suspend joint military exercises and for North Korea to freeze its weapons programs.
Over the years, Trump has said again and again that China is the key to squeezing the regime into submission. However, China does not appear willing to topple Kim.
“It’s not very likely that China will follow the will of the U.S. and put a ‘heavy move’ on North Korea, like what President Trump has called for,” said Deng Yuwen, a Beijing-based expert on North Korea.
“It would expand sanctions, but there is a bottom line and the bottom line is that it won’t sanction North Korea such that it causes chaos in the North,” he added.
Lastly, Beijing does not have the same sense of urgency when it comes to the North Korea. China has always been in reach of North Korea’s military, so the development of an ICBM is not as much of a game-changer.
Plus, China’s leadership remains focused on domestic issues, namely key political meetings set for the fall, said Michael Kovrig, a Beijing-based senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, and officials are unlikely to make any move that could threaten their bases of support.
“Chinese analysts continue to argue that no amount of pressure, short of what might cause a collapse, will bring North Korea to denuclearize,” Kovrig said.
“Beijing’s prescription is still to coax rather than to pressure. Unlike the U.S., it’s not in a hurry and hopes that economic incentives can gradually induce Pyongyang to moderate its behavior.”