North Korea’s launch of a longer-range missile shows advances in its technological capabilities and offers the sternest test yet of President Donald Trump’s strategy to work with China to combat the threat. Will China fully enforce global sanctions on North Korea and back tough new penalties? If not, will Trump accept the growing calls from Congress to start targeting Chinese companies that help Pyongyang access international markets, even if that puts U.S.-China ties under new strain?
The U.N. Security Council is set to discuss North Korea’s latest provocation Tuesday. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley raised the possibility of a new set of global economic restrictions for the North, including on oil imports. France and Britain on Monday both publicly supported tougher sanctions. China is feeling increasingly alienated from its wayward North Korean ally and Sunday’s headline-grabbing missile launch won’t have helped matters. It came as Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted 30 world leaders for talks on trade and infrastructure. The test also immediately closed the space for maneuvering for U.S.-allied South Korea’s new president, who favors engaging North Korea.
But Trump and Xi may have the most at stake. Beijing is wary of piling on economic pressure that could cause North Korea’s collapse, and it wasn’t clear Monday if it would support new sanctions. Opposing the North’s test, China’s Foreign Ministry called on all sides to exercise restraint. China is the linchpin of Trump’s strategy for halting North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. Trump has feted Xi in hope of securing more pressure on the North, which counts on China for up to 90 percent of its trade.
“We are calling on all those folks in the region, particularly China and Russia, to do everything they can in terms of sanctions to help resolve this situation and bring stability to the peninsula,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Monday. Trump also has flexed U.S. military muscle, though with little apparent effect in deterring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from his rapid tempo of weapons tests. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which was ordered to the region last month, is still in the Sea of Japan, where the missile landed Sunday. U.S. defense officials said it landed about 60 miles from the Russian coast. Russia’s Defense Ministry put it several hundred kilometers away from the east coast city of Vladivostok.
More significant, however, was that it flew higher and for longer than previous missiles. U.S. experts said Sunday’s launch was likely a mobile, two-stage, liquid-fueled missile that North Korea displayed in a huge April 15 military parade. It could have a range of 4,500 kilometers (about 2,800 miles), putting the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam easily within range. But the system might be adapted to provide it, in time, with an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the United States.
At the U.N., Francois Delattre, France’s ambassador, said Security Council members are preparing to impose new sanctions and strengthen enforcement of existing ones. British ambassador Matthew Rycroft backed the effort. North Korea is already subject to six resolutions aimed at restricting revenue and technology applicable to its nuclear and missile programs. They’ve failed to stop the North’s progress, which includes five nuclear test explosions since 2006.
If a new resolution is pursued, haggling between Washington and Moscow could take weeks, with Russia following China’s lead. Alternatively, the council could choose instead to issue a condemnatory statement. The last set of sanctions, imposed in March, capped China’s imports of North Korean coal, a key cash earner for North Korea. A possible next step would be to restrict Chinese exports of oil to the North.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is studying possible sanctions against international companies that help the North evade restrictions, a step strongly supported in Congress. Primary targets would be banks and companies inside China, posing a dilemma for the Trump administration. Going forward with the “secondary sanctions” would anger Beijing, which views dialogue as the answer to the nuclear issue.
Such sanctions are “blunt and unpredictable,” Adam Szubin, a former top Treasury official for terrorism and financial crimes, told a Senate hearing last week. China won’t be “strong-armed” into acting against its own interests, he said.