The Trump administration has all but abandoned its early messaging that the Syrian missile strikes were an isolated military action, not part of a larger game plan for dealing with U.S. enemies. On Monday, though, Vice President Michael Pence signaled to North Korea that, under certain circumstances, it could face similar treatment.
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” the vice president said during a visit to South Korea, referring as well to the U.S. dropping the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal last week in Afghanistan.
“North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” he added, saying, “The era of strategic patience is over.”
But there were no signs the new approach had prompted the regime of Kim Jong Un to dial back its belligerency and its nuclear weapons program.
On Monday, North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Kim In Ryong, lashed out against the United States, accusing it of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.”
Analysts questioned whether the United States could duplicate its Syria and Afghanistan strikes against North Korea, which has spent decades hardening its nuclear and missile programs against attack.
“The United States does not have any good military options against North Korea,” said Bonnie Glaser, a specialist in Asian-Pacific security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Comments by Pence and others in the administration “seem like posturing to me.”
After U.S. forces fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria on April 7, Pentagon and Trump administration officials initially described the strike as a “one-off” operation aimed solely at preventing further use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
More recently, the administration has shifted the messaging, using the missile strike and last week’s deadly bombing against an Islamic State tunnel complex in Afghanistan to send a warning to North Korea and other potential adversaries.
Speaking Sunday on an ABC News program, Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, noted the connection between Syria, Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula. “This national security team is capable of rapidly responding to those sorts of crises or incidents and events and providing the president with options,” McMaster said.
“There have been mixed signals coming out about both strikes,” in Syria and Afghanistan, said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow and North Korea specialist with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. He called Pence’s remarks Monday the “clearest yet” by the administration about using Syria and Afghanistan as potential deterrences against Pyongyang.
On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to put America first and not engage in military adventures like President George W. Bush’s Iraq War and President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya. But he was highly critical of North Korea’s Kim and now appears ready to deploy not just harsh rhetoric but also the U.S. military against Kim’s regime.
After some confusing signals from the White House, the Pentagon has also dispatched the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and other warships to waters off North Korea.
Ruggiero thinks the administration’s strategy has been partially successful, preventing North Korea from recently “lashing out at South Korea,” as it did with an artillery bombardment in 2010. But the strategy is unlikely to prompt North Korea to slow its nuclear weapons program, much less abandon it, as the international community has demanded.
North Korea showed off some of its latest weapons technology in a parade honoring Kim’s late grandfather Saturday. In addition, analysis of satellite imagery suggests North Korea is preparing to conduct a new underground detonation at Mount Mantap, a peak in the northeast of the country where the regime tests its warheads.
North Korea has spent the last several decades building up its missile and nuclear warhead capabilities, as well as working to shield them from a military strike, said Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In addition, any U.S. intervention would likely result in a North Korean artillery assault on Seoul, South Korea, a metro region of 25 million people.
Kim, who’s accused of using a banned nerve agent to kill his estranged half brother, shows no sign of backing down. On Sunday, North Korea fired another missile – presumably another test flight – but it failed soon after launch.
While Trump’s recent rhetoric and military deployments have not calmed North Korea’s behavior, they have commanded the attention of China, Glaser said, which could be helpful in pressuring North Korea to dial back its provocations.
“The Chinese worry about the potential of an unpredictable (U.S.) president” acting unilaterally, said Glaser. “They can’t rule out the possibility that Trump will take care of this conflict once and for all.”
At a regular news conference Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer praised Chinese leaders for playing “a more active role” in pressuring North Korea. “We’re going to continue to urge China to exhibit its influence in the region to get better results,” he said.
As Spicer noted, Beijing announced in February that it was halting coal imports from North Korea, depriving Pyongyang of a source of currency. Overall, China has been an uneven collaborator with the United States in confronting North Korea. According to Chinese data, trade with North Korea grew 37 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period last year.
China has made clear that it doesn’t want to destabilize North Korea to the degree that the regime collapses and chaos ensues. For that reason, it has worked through the United Nations to limit sanctions on its rogue neighbor, including calls to cut off crude oil shipments to North Korea. China is the main source of those shipments.
Ruggiero – who previously worked in the U.S. Treasury and State departments, specializing in sanctions and nonproliferation – said he was pessimistic that “China is going to be tough on North Korea.” On the other hand, he said, the new administration understandably wants to see whether China can achieve results before seeking new financial restrictions on North Korea. These could include “secondary sanctions” that could target Chinese banks and companies accused of illicit transactions with Pyongyang.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with information about the Pentagon dispatching the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to waters near North Korea.