The Trump administration is taking a hard line against North Korea that could signal the start of a new sanctions campaign targeting China.
On Friday, during his visit to South Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that all options are on the table to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, including military ones.
President Trump backed up Tillerson’s remarks, writing on Twitter that North Korea “is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
Tillerson did not elaborate on what options he meant, but experts say potential options could range from preemptive strikes against nuclear and missile facilities, attempting to shoot down a missile during tests, or even regime change.
But many experts also cautioned about jumping to conclusions. They said that any military action would be unwise as North Korea would likely respond in kind, putting U.S. allies South Korea and Japan at risk, as well U.S. citizens in those countries.
“We should not expect that would be a freebie, and the receiver of whatever they would do would most likely be the South Koreans and the Japanese,” said Robert Gullucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994.
North Korea has confounded U.S. administration after administration with by continuing to develop nuclear weapons in the face of international sanctions and isolation.
Former President Obama before leaving office reportedly warned President Trump that North Korea would be the most urgent problem he would confront.
Tillerson has made clear in his first Asia trip that the Trump administration plans to try a different approach.
During his stop Thursday in Japan, Tillerson said the different attempts to North Korea over the past 20 years, including diplomacy, “have failed.”
On Friday, Tillerson added that “strategic patience” — an Obama administration description of North Korea strategy — is over.
“All of the options are on the table,” Tillerson said during a press conference in Seoul. “Certainly, we do not want to — for things to get to a military conflict. We are quite clear in that, in our communications. But obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.”
Some experts threw cold water on the notion that Tillerson actually meant the United States would take military action.
“That could mean anything,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said of Tillerson’s comments. “It telegraphs that we mean business. That doesn’t mean war.”
Kazianis said he think it’s likely the administration will attempt secondary sanctions, including ones against Chinese entities that help North Korea.
“I have a feeling that’s what they’re actually telegraphing,” he said.
In September, the Obama administration sanctioned a Chinese company in connection with Pyongyang’s nuclear program for the first time. But such secondary sanctions have not been tried in a significant way when it comes to North Korea.
Victor Cha, director of Asia affairs for President George W. Bush’s National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, likewise said he thinks Tillerson’s tough talk was a message to China.
“I think it is natural for a policy review in a new administration to keep all options on the table,” Cha said in an email. “The tough stance could be meant to frame his next stop, Beijing, with a ‘no kidding’ message.”
Anthony Ruggiero, a North Korean expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said increased sanctions against Chinese firms would likely prompt China to push back on North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear program.
“There are things along the way that we in the United States can do before they have to do those extreme options,” Ruggiero said.
Kazianis offered that anti-ballistic missile systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), could be sent to Japan “to make sure Tokyo also has all the tools it needs to stop an attack by North Korea on its own territory.”
Yet it’s possible that Tillerson wasn’t bluffing about the possibility of military options, such as striking inside North Korea without an imminent attack or even seeking regime change.
Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, who’s now a member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s national advisory board, said military options could mean taking out North Korea’s ability to launch its own strikes.
But Gallucci cautioned that the administration “ought to think long and hard” before moving forward with a military options, a view shared by many in Washington.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said Friday that should North Korea continue to escalate its nuclear and missile programs and prompt U.S. military action “it’ll be the worst war I think we’ve seen since World War II, maybe even on a localized basis, even worse than anything we’ve seen in World War II.”
North Korea has a massive amount of artillery just across the demilitarized zone that could hit Seoul in response to a U.S. strike.
“Given the volatility of the North Koreans, they just might respond in a way that would result in thousands of casualties in South Korea,” Gard said.
Ruggiero warned North Korea would likely react to any attempt to hinder them with provocations.
“We do have to be concerned about any kind of an attack,” he said. “In 2010 they sunk a South Korean freighter and then they shelled an island in South Korea so they have shown a propensity to lash out.”
One prominent hawk in Congress cheered the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Friday pushed for China “to take this matter seriously,” and praised the White House for putting North Korea on notice for possible military repercussions.
“I appreciate Secretary Tillerson letting the world know that the clock has run out when it comes to ineffectively dealing with North Korea’s ballistic missile ambitions,” Graham said in a statement.
“Previous efforts at diplomacy have failed and the Trump Administration is right to put military action on the table to stop a growing threat to the American homeland from one of the most unstable regimes on the planet.”