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Trump signals retreat on North Korea, relations with China

President Trump’s interview yesterday with CBS Face the Nation showed him retreating both on his threats against North Korea, and on the over optimistic claims he has made about his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

On the possibility of military action against North Korea President Trump’s language was subdued.

JOHN DICKERSON: Mr. President, you and the administration said to North Korea, “Don’t test a missile.” They have tested a missile. Is the pressure not working?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I didn’t say, “Don’t test a missile.” He’s going to have to do what he has to do. But he understands we’re not going to be very happy. And I will tell you, a man that I’ve gotten to like and respect, the president of China, President Xi, I believe, has been putting pressure on him also. But so far, perhaps nothing’s happened and perhaps it has. This was a small missile. This was not a big missile. This was not a nuclear test, which he was expected to do three days ago. We’ll see what happens.

JOHN DICKERSON: You say, “Not happy.” What does that mean?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would not be happy. If he does a nuclear test, I will not be happy. And I can tell you also, I don’t believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either.

JOHN DICKERSON: Not happy mean military action?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see…..

…..I think you know me very well, where you’ve asked me many times over the last couple of years about military. I said, “We shouldn’t be announcing we’re going into Mosul.” I said, “We shouldn’t be announcing all our moves.” It is a chess game. I just don’t want people to know what my thinking is. So eventually, he will have a better delivery system. And if that happens, we can’t allow it to happen.

Despite the attempt to preserve the appearance that the option of military action is still on the table, this is very different language from the language of a short time ago, when President Trump was talking about the US being prepared to take action unilaterally, and when he boasted about the mighty “armada” the US was sending to North Korea.

The change in tone in Trump’s comments again all but confirms that the idea of military action against North Korea has for the time being at least been ruled out.

What is also striking about President Trump’s comments is the element of caution he has belatedly introduced into his discussions of his relationship with President Xi Jinping of China.

Firstly, in the above comments, Trump says that Xi Jinping “would not be happy” if North Korea carried out another nuclear test.  That is undoubtedly true, and the Chinese have repeatedly said as much.  However he says that he only “believes” that Xi Jinping has putting pressure on North Korea not to carry out a nuclear test.

As a matter of fact this belief is almost certainly correct.  Not only have the Chinese repeatedly made clear to the North Koreans that they strongly disapprove of the whole North Korean nuclear weapons programme, but the Chinese have also repeatedly made it clear to the North Koreans that they strongly disapprove of any further North Korean nuclear tests, and there is no doubt this message is being conveyed with unambiguous clarity to the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang.

However in his comments President Trump seemed to signal for the first time a realisation that there are limits to the degree of understanding that he has forged with the Chinese President, and that there are limits to how far Chinese pressure on North Korea will go, and that the Chinese will not take steps that will put the survival of the North Korean regime in jeopardy

JOHN DICKERSON: The Chinese, our allies, have been allies with North Korea. How are you sure that they’re not using this as a way to test you?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You can never be sure of anything, can you? But I developed a very good relationship. I don’t think they want to see a destabilized North Korea. I don’t think they want to see it. They certainly don’t want to see nuclear on — from their neighbor. They haven’t liked it for a long time. But we’ll have to see what happens.

The relationship I have with China, it’s been already acclaimed as being something very special, something very different than we’ve ever had. But again, you know, we’ll find out whether or not President Xi is able to affect change.

(bold italics added)

It seems that the warning the Chinese President gave him a week before has sunk in, and that President Trump is now starting to pitch his play towards North Korea at more realistic levels.

There is one further point to make.

President Trump appears to credit his diplomacy – or to be more precise the Chinese pressure on North Korea that he feels his diplomacy has achieved – with the fact that there has not been a North Korean nuclear test in the last few weeks.

The first point to say about this is that we do not actually know for a fact that the North Koreans were planning another nuclear test these last few weeks, and that they have postponed it.  North Korea never announces its nuclear tests in advance, and the reports it was preparing another test may have been wrong.

Since 2006 North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, of which the last was conducted on 9th September 2016 ie. just 7 months ago.  The first three of these tests took place at three to four year intervals.  If North Korea really was planning another nuclear test last month, then given that there were two North Korean nuclear tests in 2016, that would represent a dramatic acceleration in the tempo of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.  Possibly reports of a sixth test being prepared were however wrong, and no such acceleration is taking place.

The second point is that if the North Koreans really were planning another test last month, then the decision to postpone it may have been due to technical reasons rather than Chinese pressure.  According to RT North Korea’s Foreign Ministry has issued a statement saying that North Korea is intent on developing its nuclear weapons programme “at maximum speed”.  If so then that may suggest that a fresh nuclear test is still being planned and may still be imminent, in which case Chinese pressure would obviously not have achieved anything.

The third point is that if the North Koreans have indeed decided to postpone a planned sixth nuclear test, that that would not necessarily be a sign of weakness or a response to Chinese pressure, but might instead be a sign of astuteness.  With the Chinese and the Russians now calling for a suspension of joint US-South Korean military exercises in return for a continued suspension of North Korean nuclear tests, the North Koreans now have the diplomatic advantage, and by postponing whatever test they may have planned they would actually increase Chinese pressure on the US to have the joint US-South Korean military exercises suspended.

Whether the North Koreans are able to make these sophisticated calculations is another matter.  The next few days might make that clear.

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