[Only China, with its vast economic leverage over its reclusive neighbor, can realistically force a change in the behavior of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. Yet despite its own rising frustration with Mr. Kim, the Chinese government has so far been unwilling to tighten the vise on him.]
By Mark Landler
President Trump with President Xi Jinping of China at the Mar-a-Lago resortin Palm Beach, Fla., on Friday. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Trump, frustrated by China’s inaction on North Korea, opened the door on Tuesday to concessions on his trade agenda with Beijing Beijing in exchange for greater Chinese support in pressuring Pyongyang. In doing so, he lashed together two sharply different issues in an already-complex relationship.
“I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” Mr. Trump declared in a morning Twitter post. Minutes later, he warned, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
Mr. Trump’s threat rattled nerves in South Korea, where the government reassured the public that the United States would not launch an attack without first consulting Seoul. But the American president’s suggestion of a grand bargain with Beijing crystallized his quandary in dealing with North Korea.
Only China, with its vast economic leverage over its reclusive neighbor, can realistically force a change in the behavior of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. Yet despite its own rising frustration with Mr. Kim, the Chinese government has so far been unwilling to tighten the vise on him.
President Xi Jinping of China did not offer Mr. Trump any public commitments on North Korea or trade when they held their first meeting last week at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla. Even in private conversations, officials said, the Chinese leader was noncommittal.
Mr. Trump has sought to link issues with China before. In December, he warned that if Beijing did not do more to curb North Korea, he would disavow the “One China” policy that has underpinned the diplomatic relationship between the United States and China for more than four decades.
When Mr. Xi then put off a phone conversation with the president, Mr. Trump was forced to call the Chinese leader in February to reaffirm the policy. Several former American officials said China was again unlikely to respond as Mr. Trump now wants.
“He’s clearly groping for leverage over China,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former top China adviser to President Barack Obama who is now head of Asia research at Eurasia Group.
But, Mr. Medeiros added, “Linking such distinct issues seldom works because each involves different actors and different interests in each system. Linkage can also be counterproductive by reinforcing China’s worst instincts.”
Administration officials said they hoped Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Xi would lead to further Chinese pressure on North Korea. Their meeting was punctuated by the missile strike on a Syrian airfield, which the officials said sent a message of resolve about Mr. Trump’s readiness to use force to defend American interests
“The last thing we want to see is a nuclear North Korea that threatens the coast of the United States, or, for that matter, any other country,” the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said Tuesday. “We need stability in that region, and I think he has put them on notice.”
Mr. Trump ordered a Navy carrier strike group into the waters off the Korean Peninsula in a show of force that previous presidents have used, but which fanned regional fears that the United States would consider a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea.
With anxiety and rumormongering rife among South Koreans, officials in Seoul said the United States would never attack the North without first consulting the South Korean government.
“The United States makes it clear that it will not take a new policy or measure without consultations with us,” Cho June-hyuck, a spokesman of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday.
Moon Jae-in, a leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, issued his own warning against the possibility of an American pre-emptive strike carried out unilaterally. “The safety of South Korea is as important as that of the United States,” he said in a Facebook post. “There should never be a pre-emptive strike without South Korean consent.”
Mr. Moon is a leading contender, vying with another opposition leader, Ahn Cheol-soo, for the May 9 presidential election to choose the successor to former President Park Geun-hye.
Ms. Park, who was impeached by Parliament in December, was formally ousted in a Constitutional Court ruling in March. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn is serving as acting president.
“Neighboring countries are taking advantage of the absence of a president in South Korea to try to exclude us and handle issues on the Korean Peninsula according to their own understanding,” Mr. Moon said, without blaming the Trump administration by name.
Still, Mr. Trump’s explicit linkage of North Korea and trade suggested that the president was more likely to seek a deal with China than to proceed unilaterally. Under pressure from the United States on trade, China proposed a 100-day plan during the summit meeting that would overhaul the trade relationship between the countries.
In his first concrete move on trade with China, Mr. Trump is preparing an executive order in coming weeks targeting countries that dump steel into the American market, a measure that would be aimed mainly at Beijing.
But it is not yet clear which side has the initiative in the evolving debate over trade. During his meeting with Mr. Xi, administration officials said, Mr. Trump warned that China needed to address its yawning trade imbalance with the United States immediately. But the Chinese did not bring any trade-related gestures to the meeting, as many experts expected.
Instead, they countered with the 100-day plan. While Mr. Trump embraced the idea, the commerce secretary, Wilbur L. Ross, noted that the plan would have “way stations” to measure progress, suggesting the White House was not willing to wait the full 100 days for results.
Mr. Spicer said that deploying a carrier strike force to the region would act as a deterrent, as well as give the president more options. For Mr. Trump, however, an attack on North Korea would be a far riskier undertaking than the strike on Syria, given the North’s nuclear arsenal, fleet of missiles and proximity to huge population centers in South Korea.
It is also clear that North Korea has no intention of forsaking nuclear arms. Top officials gathered in Pyongyang on Tuesday, the fifth anniversary of Mr. Kim’s election as leader of the ruling Workers’ Party, and vowed to uphold his policy of strengthening the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Also on Tuesday, Ri Su-yong, a Politburo member, former foreign minister and adviser and childhood mentor to Mr. Kim, was given another powerful position in Parliament. Last year, Mr. Ri, 82, told Chinese officials that North Korea’s nuclear weapons expansion was “permanent.”
Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.