Did the Syria strike push China toward action on North Korea?

So the fireworks in Syria have produced all sorts of interesting results on the international diplomacy front. World leaders in western nations who have seemed at least somewhat skeptical of President Trump (to put it mildly in some cases) were suddenly praising him. The Russians, who Democrats regularly assure us are pulling Trump’s strings, are getting nervous. But perhaps the biggest potential sea change came in an unexpected area. China’s position on North Korea and their diminutive dictator may be shifting quickly. This is probably a result of leaked information about the options Trump is being presented with and considering in terms of the Korean Peninsula. NBC News is reporting that the possible moves include not only assassinating Kim Jong-un, but moving nukes back into South Korea for the first time since the end of the cold war.

The National Security Council has presented President Trump with options to respond to North Korea’s nuclear program — including putting American nukes in South Korea or killing dictator Kim Jong-un, multiple top-ranking intelligence and military officials told NBC News.

Both scenarios are part of an accelerated review of North Korea policy prepared in advance of President Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

The White House hopes the Chinese will do more to influence Pyongyang through diplomacy and enhanced sanctions. But if that fails, and North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons, there are other options on the table that would significantly alter U.S. policy.

Excuse me… did you say nukes? And assassinations? That got China’s attention, at least according to the Secretary of State. (Washington Examiner)

Chinese President Xi Jinping has agreed to boost cooperation with the U.S. on trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its pursuit of long-range nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday.

In an off-camera briefing with reporters on the second and final day of President Trump’s summit with his Chinese counterpart, Tillerson said the two leaders recognized the imminent threat North Korea poses and agreed to respond accordingly.

Clearly, the Chinese aren’t any more worried about Kim Jong-un today than they were a few weeks ago. The guy is just as crazy as ever and his missile program remains in the same state of clunky, but still worrisome progress that it has been. But the fact that all of this Syria business was rolling out just as Trump was having dinner with Xi Jinping probably has China’s leader more worried about… Trump. After eight years of Obama foreign policy which basically boiled down to speak softly and never even pick up the stick, the rest of the world is now keenly aware that the new administration isn’t all peace, love and unicorns.

In terms of China’s attitude, fold the two stories above together. That leak reported by NBC never should have happened, obviously, but now that it has the Chinese have clearly noticed. The options under discussion, even if they are nothing more than worst case scenarios, are the stuff of nightmares for Xi Jinping. Having the United States move some nukes into South Korea would be far more than a threat to Kim in the North. It would be incredibly provocative towards both China and Russia. Keep in mind that you could basically ride a bicycle from Seoul to the Chinese border in a single day (assuming you could find a road) and Vladivostok isn’t much further up the coast. An attempt to move nukes into the area could actually provoke a showdown similar to the Cuban missile crisis and nobody really wants that.

And assassinating Kim Jong-un? While appealing in a hypothetical sense it would no doubt provoke a response which may well include a very different sort of “nuclear option.” The Chinese have got to be wondering just what sort of tiger they have by the tail in the White House right now. Obama was reliable in terms of not doing anything seriously provocative, but now Xi Jinping has had a chance to see Trump fire off nearly five dozen cruise missiles right while they were bringing out the Crème brûlée in Mar-a-Lago. He’s got to be wondering if Trump isn’t the sort of guy who’s going to wake up in a bad mood one day next week and decide to go punch Kim Jong-un in the face just to see what happens.

So now the Chinese are looking like they’re going to take Kim out behind the woodshed for a chat. Was this part of Trump’s strategy all along or just a happy bit of collateral diplomatic debris? His most ardent supporters can use this as evidence to argue that he’s playing three dimensional chess on the international front after eight years of Obama playing checkers. His detractors will call it dumb luck. Personally, I’m guessing that he was already briefed on and anticipating some benefits from the missile strike in areas which are almost totally unrelated to Syria, but it’s not the sort of thing he wanted to predict publicly because China can be fairly tough to anticipate at times.