President Trump, following a script of months’ standing, is again looking to China to exert pressure on North Korea’s mercurial leader, Kim Jong Un. But hopes for a Washington-Beijing partnership to rein in Kim had been steadily unraveling even before North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test.
“Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” the president wrote late Monday on Twitter after Pyongyang fired a projectile that flew for 40 minutes, representing what experts described as a significant advance in its missile technology.
China, along with Russia, branded the launch “unacceptable” and urged North Korea to suspend its missile and nuclear programs.
But the two countries also urged the United States to halt military exercises with South Korea and scrap a controversial U.S. anti-missile system that has been partially deployed in South Korea – calls that Washington is unlikely to heed.
In April, after a cordial encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump had expressed optimism that Washington and Beijing could team up to confront the North Korean threat.
However, Beijing has been openly irritated by recent steps taken by the Trump administration, including trade threats, plans to sell more than $1.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan, and China being singled out for strong criticism in last week’s annual State Department report on human trafficking.
The Chinese government was also angered when a U.S. warship sailed close to Chinese-claimed territory in the South China Sea.
Although China has taken only relatively mild measures against Kim in the course of the nearly six-month-old Trump administration, official U.S. attitudes toward North Korea hardened last month with the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who spent more than a year and a half in North Korean captivity before being sent home in a coma. He had been arrested during an adventure-tourism trip and accused of stealing a propaganda banner, apparently for a souvenir.
On a personal level, Trump has appeared increasingly frustrated with Kim, whom he had previously called a “smart cookie.” In his Twitter missive following news of the launch, the president asked rhetorically: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
Trump spoke by phone with Xi on Sunday night, again raising the North Korea question, according to the White House. He will be seeing the Chinese leader this week at the Group of 20 meeting in Germany.
Leaders of South Korea and Japan, U.S. regional allies who have been alarmed by Kim’s growing shows of belligerence, will also be at the gathering in the northern German city of Hamburg.
In his tweets, Trump implied, somewhat puzzlingly, that Tokyo or Seoul might take some unilateral action against North Korea.
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” the president wrote.
Both countries are home to large contingents of American troops and rely heavily on the U.S. defense umbrella.
Washington and Seoul, however, do not see eye-to-eye on how to deal with the North.
South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, who visited the White House last week, has been an active advocate of diplomatic engagement with North Korea. In June, Moon suspended the deployment of part of the THAAD anti-missile system, whose installation North Korea has described as a provocation.