No one needs to look for tarot cards to figure out why Donald Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson task group to sail for the Korean peninsula — he’s sending a message to North Korea. That message was already received in Pyongyang, but as Bloomberg reports today, it has been picked up by our allies too, with varying degrees of public enthusiasm. South Korea and Japan have played down the significance of the move and are sending signals of their own back to Washington to tread carefully:
South Korea doesn’t support a preemptive strike and is closely coordinating with the Trump administration, according to an Asian government official familiar with North Korean issues who asked not to be identified. Trump must take into consideration the countries affected for any military decision, the official said. …
Japan might only support a limited strike that targeted North Korea’s weapon facilities, according to a person with knowledge of the Abe administration’s thinking. In that scenario, the biggest risk Japan sees would be a North Korean attack on U.S. bases in the country, said the person, who asked not to be named while discussing matters of national security.
“This is psychological warfare,” said Narushige Michishita, a former Japanese defense ministry official and professor of strategic studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “When you want to scare your enemy, you have to make your own people believe that this is real. It is only natural that the U.S. is playing this game. While playing this game, the U.S. cannot tell us clearly that this is just bluffing.”
The Abe government in Japan is more willing to play along publicly than the transitional government in South Korea is. A spokesman for Abe told the media today, “We approve of the US attitude of keeping all options on the table.” That’s certainly not a dash of cold water, and not a call to return to softer messaging either.
China is the real key to resolving the Korean standoff, of course, so the real question is whether China will respond to Trump’s messaging with opposition or reinforcement. Both Bloomberg and Strategy Page say that, for now, China has decided to sing in harmony with the US:
A Chinese daily newspaper (Global Times) known for being a state-controlled media outlet used to test new ideas published an item today pointing out that if North Korea does not abandon its nuclear weapons program (which is seen as a threat to China) then China will bomb the nuclear facilities and North Korea will have to live with that or suffer further military and economic consequences they cannot respond to (by attacking China). This article also warned the United States not to contemplate doing this, as North Korea was for neighbor China to deal with, not some distant superpower. Within hours the article was removed from the Global Times website, but many people had seen it and it still existed in Google cache.
In other words, China was telling North Korea that stronger measures from China were now a possibility. At the same time the U.S. was making it clear that the kind of attack on Syria the U.S. recently carried out could be tried on North Korea. China agrees that it might come to that but they insist that the bombs or missiles be Chinese.
Undoubtedly, the US would prefer that too — and would regard that threat as long overdue. Even if GT pulled that article after a few hours, another editorial published today makes Beijing’s point almost as clear. If the Kim regime insists on further nuclear provocations, China will “react strongly”:
Presumably Beijing will react strongly to Pyongyang’s new nuclear actions. China will not remain indifferent to Pyongyang’s aggravating violation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution.
More and more Chinese support the view that the government should enhance sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. If the North makes another provocative move this month, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to the North. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is intended for securing the regime, however, it is reaching a tipping point. Pyongyang hopes its gamble will work, but all signs point to the opposite direction.
The US is making up its mind to stop the North from conducting further nuclear tests, it doesn’t plan to co-exist with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
China supports solution of the North Korean nuclear issue under the framework of UNSC and Six-Party Talks. If the US takes unilateral action, it will win little international support. Pyongyang can continue its tough stance, however, for its own security, it should at least halt provocative nuclear and missile activities.
The editorial also explicitly warns that Trump has re-established American credibility with the strike on Syria, and that clearly “a situation of no-solution will not be accepted” by the new US administration. The editorial ends with a clear warning, emphasis mine: “Pyongyang should avoid making mistakes at this time.”
If that doesn’t take the cake for Kim Jong-un, perhaps this clip from Trump’s interview with Fox Business News’ Maria Bartiromo will. They’ll know they’re in trouble when Trump asks for the dessert menu.
— FOX Business (@FoxBusiness) April 12, 2017