U.S. Says It's Encouraged by China's Help Pressing N. Korea

  • State Department says other options remain if China bid fails
  • Pence, in S. Korea, talks of Trump’s ‘strength and resolve’

Abe Urges China to Take Bigger Role on North Korea

The U.S. has gotten encouraging signs that China will act to pressure Kim Jong Un’s regime to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, a State Department official said, but the Trump administration is holding on to military action -- alone or with allies -- as an option.

While Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the U.S. wants to work with China to ease tensions, she declined to say Monday whether the U.S. is closer to acting on its own to counter the threat from North Korea.

“I can’t telegraph any specific response, but there’s definitely a feeling that we are determined and resolved to not let North Korea continue to undertake these threatening behaviors,” Thornton said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re going to work with China and see if we can get them to do more, and if they decide they’re not going to work with us or not cooperate with us, then we’re going to have to change tack and try something else.”

Thornton, who said the U.S. goal isn’t to oust Kim’s regime, spoke after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with American troops in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea after Kim’s regime defied the Trump administration with another missile test.

Read how North Korea’s nuclear ambitions defy the world -- a QuickTake

While Pence told the troops that President Donald Trump wants to resolve the standoff “through peaceful means, through negotiations” if possible, Thornton said later that the time isn’t right for talks. “The U.S. would need to first see some signal from the North that it is willing to engage in discussions that ended with the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” she said.

North Korea signaled Monday that it was in no mood for conciliation. Its United Nations envoy, Kim In Ryong, told reporters in New York that the U.S. has pushed the Korean peninsula to the “brink of war.” He said the U.S. “has to come to its senses.”

QuickTake Trump’s Options to Deal With North Korean Threat

The U.S. has confronted North Korea over its weapons program in the past, but the stakes have increased with signs the regime is closer to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland and to miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to put atop it. Any U.S. military response would be perilous because the North has vowed to retaliate and South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is within range of North Korea’s artillery.

As Pence tours the region, a U.S. carrier strike group is on its way to a position within range of North Korea, a show of force that also makes it easier to launch a military strike on a country with far more sophisticated defenses than either Syria, which the U.S. hit with cruise missiles, or Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, which the U.S. attacked last week with the most powerful conventional bomb used in combat.

China’s Leverage

Pence said he was “heartened” by early signs from China and hoped its leaders would “use the extraordinary levers they have” to prod Kim into giving up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But he also offered the recent U.S. missile strike against Syria and deployment of powerful bombs in Afghanistan as evidence of Trump’s willingness to attack if necessary.

“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” Pence said at a news briefing with South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn in Seoul later Monday. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve -- or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”

Weighing Options

Trump’s team is weighing options for preventing Kim from acquiring the ability to strike North America with a nuclear weapon. The administration is leaning on China, North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, and seeking to bolster missile defense systems in allies South Korea and Japan.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Monday repeated a call for all parties to avoid any provocations and said China isn’t the key to resolving all problems on the Korean Peninsula. 

Underscoring questions about the extent of Beijing’s influence, North Korea snubbed senior Chinese diplomats this month as tensions mounted with the U.S., according to people familiar with the situation. Pyongyang didn’t respond to requests from China Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Wu Dawei, the country’s top envoy for North Korean nuclear affairs, to meet with their North Korean counterparts, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private. The overtures came after Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Trump in Florida, the people said.

Read more about North Korea snubbing China’s diplomats

Initial reports indicate the projectile North Korea launched on Sunday was a medium-range missile and failed after about four or five seconds, a White House foreign policy adviser told reporters. That eased the risk of imminent retaliation from Trump.

Trump is still willing to consider military action, including a sudden strike, to counteract North Korea’s series of destabilizing actions, said two people familiar with the White House’s thinking. Even so, he prefers to have China take the lead on handling North Korea, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Graphic: Kim Jong Un’s Big Nuclear Push Is Closing In on America

Hwang said that the country will try to swiftly deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as Thaad. China is concerned at the surveillance capabilities of Thaad and has responded by restricting sales of tour packages and suspending more than half of the stores Lotte operates in China, citing alleged fire safety violations.

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Trump has sought to pressure China by linking North Korea to economic policy, including the nation’s currency policy.

“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “We will see what happens!”

South Korea is the first stop for Pence on a previously scheduled trip through Asia that will also take him to Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Pence is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the DMZ since former President Barack Obama did so in 2012. Tillerson greeted troops at Camp Bonifas during a trip last month.

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs, Peter Martin, Lulu Yilun Chen, and Kambiz Foroohar

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