Monday Morning Round Up: The Mar-a-Lago Summit and the Syrian Airstrikes



Before the Mar-a-Lago summit convened, the two sides let it be known that there would be no joint statement and no press conference, signaling that the likelihood of substantive agreements—including on North Korea—was low. The two major deliverables from the meeting were both procedural: the expansion of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to a four-pillar affair formally chaired by the presidents and including new subcommittees on law enforcement and cybersecurity and on social and cultural issues; and a 100-day plan which—like the President’s Executive Orders on trade—kick promised action on China further down the road.

Given the absence of formal statements, clues with respect to North Korea came from a joint press conference featuring Secretaries Tillerson, Mnuchin and Ross and the Sunday morning talk shows. At the news conference, Tillerson claimed that the two sides “agreed to increase cooperation and work with the international community to convince the DPRK to peacefully resolve the issue and abandon its illicit weapons programs.” For Beijing, the favored way for such cooperation to take place would be for the US to resume talks, including bilaterally. To say that this is unlikely is an understatement. But the result is that at least for now it is hard to distinguish the Trump administration’s approach from “strategic patience,” which Secretary Tillerson claimed was dead while in Seoul last month. On Face the Nation, Tillerson again did not rule out negotiations altogether, saying that “perhaps discussions may be useful” at some point in the future. But before the US could get to that point, the US and China would have to work together to “change the conditions in the minds of the DPRK leadership.”

It is not clear how such a change of heart would take place absent an offer of negotiations except through increased pressure. Such pressure can essentially come in two forms: military signaling, or perhaps even something more dramatic along Syrian lines; or increased sanctions.

The constraints on the Syrian option are too obvious to restate at any length. Any strikes on North Korea would run risks with respect to Japan and Korea. And in any case, the use of force would have to be much more wide-ranging than the Syrian raid on a single airfield if it was to simultaneously have material effect and deter a response.

On Sunday, the Pentagon announced the Carl Vinson carrier task force would be diverted from port calls in Australia back toward the Korean peninsula, where it had recently participated in exercises. In response to a question about the movement of the Vinson on Fox News from Chris Wallace, General McMaster went so far as to say that the president had asked for “a full range of options to remove that threat the American people [sic] and to our allies and partners in the region.” But despite the capabilities of a carrier task force, it would be a tall order for such forces to “remove” North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

Perhaps the most important military signal that the US has to sway Beijing is with respect to missile defense; we would love to know what Xi and Trump had to say with respect to THAAD, which has been a preoccupation of the Chinese president. The Chosun Ilbo reports that Trump’s discussion of THAAD with Xi was one subject raised in Trump’s phone call to interim-President Hwang over the weekend to brief on the summit.

Our best bet: that secondary sanctions are still the promised unilateral action that the President and Tillerson continue to claim is on the table. At the press conference, both Secretaries Ross and Mnuchin made comments about Korea-related sanctions. China has been staunchly opposed to the imposition of secondary sanctions in principle. But Beijing has shown more reserve with respect to cases in which sanctions evasion on the part of Chinese firms has been exposed, including the Hongxiang and the ZTE case. As we have noted in recent posts, cooperation with the Chinese, or a more aggressive pursuit of secondary sanctions if needed, will finally provide a natural experiment on one of the longest and most contentious debates among Korea watchers: between those that believe that North Korea is oblivious to outside pressure (or that the Chinese will forever protect them) and those who believe, in effect, that sanctions have never been tried. Stay tuned.

A more detailed treatment of the Mar-a-Lago summit by Stephan Haggard can be found at NKNews (behind a paywall)

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