President Trump departed Washington on Friday for his first visit to Asia, a 12-day swing through five countries that comes as the once unthinkable has become a palpable concern from Tokyo to Seoul to Beijing — a war with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Trump’s escalating rhetoric and Pyongyang’s accelerating weapons programs have set the region on edge and prompted national security adviser H.R. McMaster to declare this week that the world is “running out of time” to stop the North.
“North Korea is a threat to the entire world,” McMaster told reporters at the White House.
Trump’s trip — with bilateral visits to Japan, South Korea and China and stops at regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines — could go a long way toward determining the success of his administration’s policy. Aides said they are committed to applying “maximum pressure”on Pyongyang to head off its nuclear threat and resolve the situation peacefully.
Senior White House aides said Trump’s top priority on the longest overseas trip of any president since George H.W. Bush in 1991 will be to build on the initial success his administration has had in rallying international support for isolating North Korea. Responding to pressure from the United States, the United Nations Security Council approved two rounds of stiffer economic sanctions, and a growing number of countries have severed diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and banished North Korean guest workers.
But beyond the sanctions and the silent treatment looms the very real prospect that none of these tactics — employed to varying degrees by previous administrations — will persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to veer from his pursuit of a nuclear weapon that can reliably reach the U.S. mainland — a goal analysts said would sharply tilt the leverage in his favor in any future negotiations.
That raises the question being privately assessed and publicly debated across Northeast Asia: How real are Trump’s threats of using military options to prevent Kim from succeeding?
“I think the Chinese are divided on the seriousness of President Trump about the potential of a U.S. military strike,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who visited Beijing last week. “Some say President Trump is unpredictable and that he could launch a preventative or a preemptive attack. They worry the situation is getting out of control. Other experts said they think Trump is bluffing to scare Beijing into greater pressure on Kim.”
Glaser added: “I sensed more of the former view. There’s more seriousness about the considerations being taken by the Trump administration.”
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised eyebrows during a gathering of international foreign policy experts last week when he acknowledged that there is “some worry about applying that much pressure on North Korea and whether this will lead to war.”
The Japanese leader, whose governing Liberal Democratic Party emerged stronger last month after winning more parliament seats in a snap election, emphasized that his administration fully supports Trump’s position that direct diplomatic talks with Pyongyang are not worthwhile given Kim’s consistent provocations.
“Of course, I do not wish for a conflict,” Abe said at the Mount Fuji dialogue. “However, dialogue with North Korea for the sake of dialogue is meaningless.”
In Seoul, Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis has led to a number of angry public protests ahead of his arrival — and widespread confusion and apprehension over his intentions. President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which came to power this year advocating a more open policy toward the North that favored talks, has sought to align more closely with the United States in the wake of Kim’s increased nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
But Moon’s aides objected to White House proposals that Trump visit the heavily guarded demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea over fears that his rhetoric would further inflame tensions at a time when the South is preparing to play host to the Winter Olympics early next year. Trump has threatened that Pyongyang would feel the “fire and fury” of the U.S. military if it continued its threats, and the president pledged during a speech at the United Nations in September to “totally destroy” the North if necessary.
The White House agreed to have Trump instead visit Camp Humphreys, a joint U.S.-South Korea military base south of Seoul. But at recent protests, South Koreans waved signs that superimposed the American leader over nuclear explosions.
“President Trump is frequently making ludicrous comments implying war,” said Han Sun-bum, a representative of one of the largest protest groups, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. “His comments, coupled with large-scale joint military exercises, have created a very precarious situation in the Korean Peninsula.”
Trump’s trip includes heavy messaging on the U.S. commitment to strong defense cooperation with allies in East Asia. The president will stop first at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where he plans to tour the USS Arizona, the battleship sunk during the Japanese surprise attack in 1941 that drew the United States into the Pacific theater in World War II.
In Tokyo, Trump is scheduled to speak with U.S. troops at Yokota Air Base and meet with the families of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s. In Seoul, he will address the South Korean National Assembly, emphasizing that all nations must act with increased urgency.
Asked whether Trump plans to use the same type of inflamed rhetoric he often has when discussing Pyongyang, McMaster said: “I don’t think the president really modulates his language.” He added: “I’ve been aware of the discussions about, ‘Hey, is this inflammatory?’ And what’s inflammatory is the North Korean regime and what they’re doing to threaten the world.”
Foreign policy experts called Trump’s public threats and belittling of Kim — the president has dubbed him “Little Rocket Man” — a misguided attempt to apply psychological pressure. In fact, they said, such tactics allow Kim to further demonize the United States.
[In U.N. speech, Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ and calls Kim Jong Un ‘Rocket Man’]
One former Obama administration official called Trump’s rhetoric “sophomoric” and said it was “a primitive misreading about how they operate.”
This former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak bluntly, said that if Trump “veers off the teleprompter into belittling insult-land,” that could “significantly increase the distress felt throughout South Korea,” where some hard-liners in parliament have suggested the nation should consider developing its own nuclear arsenal.
Meantime, China, where Trump will make a three-day state visit, has announced a crackdown on banks that do business with North Korea, although experts said it is hard to gauge how seriously Beijing will implement the new controls. Chinese President Xi Jinping emerged more powerful after the Communist Party Congress last month, and Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters this week that the United States and its allies could do more to resolve the standoff peacefully.
“If only China is making its best efforts and others are doing things that lead to an escalation of tensions, this issue will not be solved,” Cui said.
The Trump administration, following the policies of past administrations, has refused to entertain the Chinese proposal of freezing U.S. and South Korean military cooperation in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s weapons testing. McMaster ruled out the idea again this week, saying Pyongyang cannot be trusted to abide by any such agreements.
“We’re out of time,” McMaster said. “In terms of scenarios, the president’s always very clear: You know he doesn’t draw red lines; he doesn’t forecast directly or say directly what he’s going to do. But he’ll do whatever it takes to protect the American people and our allies.”
Taylor reported from Seoul. Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.