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

April 10, 2017 9:30 AM

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)

Recent Posts on Sanctions and Trump’s Foreign Policy in Asia


Richard ONeil


Surgical Strike

What if? The TALCM strike against Syria was really about setting up a surgical strike against North Korea?

Premise #1.  North Korea is all about Kim Jung Un.

Premise #2. NK nukes and long range missiles threaten not only the US and it allies, but Russia and China as well.

Premise #3. Russia and China gain little from Kim's complete focus on keeping himself alive and in power and run the real risk that NK could miscalculate and “blow up” northeast Asia.

Premise #4. Without nukes and long range missiles, Kim is just a bit player and alone is little threat to the region.

Premise #5. Chemical weapons are a little recognized “wild card”. Lobbing a few hundred sarin gas shells from the DMZ into Seoul would cause mass panic and evacuation of the city. A NK chemical weapon retaliation must be neutralized for any “surgical strike” to be successful

Assad has used chemical weapons in his war arsenal pretty much with impunity and chemical weapons have become a “normal” weapon of war – or at least more normal than the horror with which they were  viewed during the Cold War.  The TALCM retaliation has changed that equation, headlined the horrors of a chemical attack and put the world on notice that the US will retaliate against a chemical weapons attack. Kim will have noticed.

Leaks out of the White House and Pentagon over the past few days have outlined plans to decapitate the NK leadership and kill Kim. Kim will have noticed.

The Carl Vinson battle group is moving into position against NK and the USAF has recently flown long range bomber missions against NK. Kim will have noticed.

The only military action against NK that makes any sense is to destroy the nuclear, missile and submarine facilities of North Korea and let it be known that they will be taken out again, if they are rebuilt. There really are not that many facilities and they have taken NK great treasure to build and would be extremely expensive to rebuild. A surgical strike combined with strong monetary sanctions and and agreement with China and Russia that it is in all our interests to ensure that NK does not get the resources to rebuild these facilities would make Kim a “bit player” for the foreseeable future.

Blowing down the mountain and sealing the entrances to the nuclear test tunnels will stop NK nuclear testing – at least for a while. Could they attempt to open the tunnels up and build new ones? Yes. But it is easier to destroy future tunnels than to dig them. Could they move them somewhere else in NK. Yes, but we would find them.

Destroying all the facilities at Yongbyon and all other known nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons storage facilities would put an extensive dent in their nuclear program. Would they still have nuclear weapons and be able to produce more over the years. Yes. It is too late to end that. If we acted in 1985 when we first knew that NK was on the road to producing a nuclear weapon, we might have stopped them or at least significantly slowed them down.
Taking out their rocket launching facilities, engine test stands, missile production plants and submarine production facilities, as well as currently deployed medium range missile launch facilities would significantly reduce their ability to launch missiles against the region and end their development of long range missiles that could threaten the US mainland.

Could the US execute a surgical strike against NK nuclear and missile facilities without starting a conflagration in Korea? Maybe. If Kim was convinced that this was a “surgical strike” against limited targets and not against him and his leadership and that a massive response from him would lead to targeting him directly and that China and Russia guaranteed the continuation of his regime, self preservation would make him pause. He would have to shell ROK positions along the DMZ and western islands to save face and declare a great victory, but most of the nuclear and missile facilities are far away from populated areas, so he could hide much of the destruction, at least for a while.

For this scenario to work, NK chemical weapons must be out of the equation. Kim will not use nukes, because he knows that if he does, he is toast. He has to be convinced that  the use of chemical weapons is just as unacceptable. Were the Syrian strikes designed to do that? Did they?

For this to be successful, China and Russian have to at least agree that this is in their best interests, even if they are not willing to say so publicly. Trump just met with the Chinese and Rex Tillerson is off to Russia.

I hesitate to postulate that Trump actually has a plan or policy, but his generals might.  



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