Washington: Donald Trump has drawn his own red line on North Korea’s dangerous weapons program – equating a threatened intercontinental missile test with a nuclear weapon that could hit the US, the President tweeted bluntly in January: “It won’t happen.”
And at the weekend, his aides gave definition to that categoric claim’s terms and timeline – for now, at least, it stops short of a pre-emptive military strike, but Pyongyang’s determination to press ahead with tests is a challenge that Trump will confront within months.
Here’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on the Sunday morning talk shows: “It’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully,” he told ABC’s This Week.
And here’s his deputy K.T. McFarland over at Fox News: “The threat is upon us – this is something President Trump is going to deal with in the first year.”
Uncharacteristically, Trump let his aides have their heads through the Easter weekend. While he played golf in Florida and maintained near-total Twitter silence, the strategic accent was on more diplomacy.
But it played out against a backdrop of military muscle-flexing – Pyongyang’s failed missile test in the hours after showcasing its arsenal in a dramatic military parade on Saturday; and Trump’s recent first tastes of unleashing US military power – a snap missile strike on Syria; dropping the US’s biggest non-nuclear bomb on an IS target in Afghanistan; and moving a US naval “armada” closer to the Korean Peninsula.
The options for the US and its allies haven’t changed – military and diplomatic, or a combination of both; overt or covert.
At the weekend, administration officials steadfastly refused to answer questions on a theory that Washington might have used covert cyber operations means to prompt the failure of North Korea’s latest missile test – as it had done to thwart elements of Iran’s nuclear program.
Instead, they continued to talk up sanctions – principally, by encouraging Beijing, North Korea’s No.1 trading partner, to impose crippling sanctions on Pyongyang; and influential members of Congress urged international sanctions on Chinese entities doing businesses in the North, in a bid to make the reluctant Chinese leadership more compliant.
McMaster said that Trump had ordered the National Security Council to work with the Defence and State departments, and intelligence agencies, to “provide options and have them ready for him if this pattern of destabilising behaviour continues”.
Describing the failed missile test as “provocative,” McMaster said: “The consensus with the President, our key allies in the region – Japan and South Korea in particular, but also the Chinese leadership – is that this problem is coming to a head,” he said, speaking from Afghanistan.
McMaster didn’t remove the military option from the table, saying: “It’s clear that the President is determined not to allow this kind of capability to threaten the United States. And our President will take action that is in the best interest of the American people.
“This is a situation that just can’t continue. The President’s made very clear that he is not in the business of announcing in advance exactly what he’s going to do in any particular situation.”
McFarland presented herself as underwhelmed by Pyongyang’s failed missile test – declaring that it was “not a surprise”.
“Even in the last year, President Kim of North Korea has launched over 30 missiles,” she said. “Most of them have failed. So it didn’t come as a surprise to us. We were expecting something surrounding the birthday of his grandfather.”
Urging strategic patience, she explained: “It’s like your kids in the back of the car on a long trip saying, ‘When are we going to get there?’ Well, in this case, I think we should give the Chinese president some opportunities and some time, as well as pursuing the economic and diplomatic pressures that we have and that our allies have that we can bring to bear on North Korea.”
And she stonewalled when probed on any hand Washington might have had in causing the weekend missile test to fail.
“You know we can’t talk about secret intelligence and things that might have been done, covert operations that might have happened,” she said. “So, I really have no comment on that, and nor should I.”
An unnamed White House official told reporters that there might be no immediate US response to the failed test – “a nuclear test, though, would be a different case, the official added”, according to a report by The New York Times.
Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, urged sanctions during an appearance on CNN. In particular, he called on Trump president to sanction 10 Chinese banks, to deny the North funding for its weapons program.
“We are looking at shutting off every dime of money that goes in there,” he said.