[One senior administration official involved in the planning called it “responsible” to increase the defenses of the United States and its allies against growing threats from North Korea. The official acknowledged that doing so would displease Beijing, but noted that China has the option of helping constrain and pressure the North.]
By David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon
A Japanese soldier guarding a PAC-3 surface-to-air missile launcher in Tokyo
this month. Credit Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will warn China’s leaders that the United States is prepared to step up missile defenses and pressure on Chinese financial institutions if they fail to use their influence to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, according to several officials involved in planning his first mission to Asia.
China has complained vociferously about the Trump administration’s recent decision to speed up the deployment of the Thaad antimissile system in South Korea, charging that it will undermine regional stability.
But the Trump administration’s message is that the United States has run out of time to respond to North Korea’s military advances, and that the party the Chinese needs to complain to is in Pyongyang.
One senior administration official involved in the planning called it “responsible” to increase the defenses of the United States and its allies against growing threats from North Korea. The official acknowledged that doing so would displease Beijing, but noted that China has the option of helping constrain and pressure the North.
The official agreed to discuss the internal deliberations of Mr. Tillerson’s trip on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified.
The tough message was shaped in a series of White House meetings before Mr. Tillerson’s departure for Japan on Tuesday. It also followed more proposals at both ends of the spectrum — including opening up talks with North Korea and preparing for military action against its key missile and nuclear sites — that were set aside, at least for now.
The result is that Mr. Tillerson is essentially adopting variants of the approaches that the Bush and Obama administrations took, though guided by Mr. Trump’s declarations that, unlike his predecessors, he will stop the North Korean program from developing a new intercontinental missile.
Against the waves of nuclear and missile tests in the past year, and Pyongyang’s declaration that it is in the “final stages” of preparations for the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the White House recognizes it has little time for debate, the senior administration official said.
This is not the first time that a secretary of state has sought to play the missile defense card. Mr. Tillerson’s immediate predecessor in the job, John Kerry, told the Chinese that if China succeeded in constraining Pyongyang’s military ambitions, the United States could limit and perhaps even withdraw some of its antimissile systems in the region.
“The president of the United States deployed some additional missile defense capacity precisely because of the threat of North Korea,” Mr. Kerry said after an April 2013 visit to Beijing. “And it is logical that if the threat of North Korea disappears because the peninsula denuclearizes, then obviously that threat no longer mandates that kind of posture.”
But there is no evidence that China, perhaps fearing instability on the Korean Peninsula, ever applied the sort of pressure that would have prompted North Korea to shelve its military programs.
It is not clear how explicitly Mr. Tillerson, a diplomatic novice with no past experience in proliferation issues, will deliver the message to the Chinese at a moment that he will also be trying to set up the first meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida early next month.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump said he was willing to sit down with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and negotiate with him directly, perhaps over a hamburger. Since then, Mr. Trump has taken an increasingly hard line, and suggested that he would link China’s use of its influence over the North to other issues, including trade relations.
Last week, the Chinese repeated a proposal they knew the United States would reject, calling for a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in return for a cessation of American and South Korean annual military exercises, which are just now beginning. The Trump administration immediately rejected that call, saying that it would reward the North if it complied with United Nations resolutions it had long ignored, and would make the United States’ defense arrangements with South Korea a subject of bargaining.
Reinforcing military ties, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conducted a 30-minute phone call on Tuesday with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Lee Sun-jin. A Pentagon statement said the generals discussed the possibility that North Korea could carry out “provocative actions” during the joint American and South Korean exercises now underway, or in April when North Korean authorities commemorate the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the founder and first leader of the country.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that in addition to bolstering traditional missile defenses, former President Barack Obama had ordered stepped-up cyber and electronic warfare attacks on the North’s intermediate-range missiles. In some of the tests, those missiles have had a remarkably high failure rate, though it is impossible to say how much those problems are rooted in American sabotage. More recently, however, North Korea has achieved some notable advances, including the test of a solid fueled intermediate-range missile and the recent launch of four medium range missiles into the Sea of Japan.
During the administration’s deliberations, there has also been discussion of putting more pressure on Chinese banks, perhaps through “secondary sanctions,” that would make it difficult for any bank that did business with North Korea to also deal in American dollars. The technique worked effectively against Iran before it reached a nuclear agreement in the summer of 2015.
But Daniel Glaser, a former Treasury official who constructed many of the sanctions, and now a partner in the Financial Integrity Network, said in an interview that the largest Chinese banks often shun dealings with North Korea and that some of the smaller ones have little exposure to the American banking system.
“It’s not easy to execute,” he said. “The North Koreans have hidden these relationships, and directed them, with care.”