The North Korean thorn in Trump's side

North Korea fires ballistic missile into sea
North Korea fires ballistic missile into sea

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Story highlights

  • On Tuesday, North Korea conducted yet another ballistic missile test
  • Jonathan Cristol: Since North Korea is a close ally of China, this will make Trump's meeting with Xi Jinping more acrimonious

Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)On Tuesday, North Korea conducted its fourth ballistic missile test this year. It fired a land-based scud missile, which traveled 32 miles before crashing into waters east of the Korean peninsula.

This missile test, like those before it, was specifically timed to coincide with a major political event. Past missile tests have been timed to Trump's meeting with Japanese President Shinzo Abe and the annual joint US-South Korea military exercises. This latest test comes just before Trump is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and it could turn an already contentious meeting into an acrimonious one.
Jonathan Cristol
One month after the previous test, the Trump Administration is no closer to an actual plan or coherent strategy for dealing with North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all but said as much in his statement on the test. The statement, in its entirety, read, "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment." The military later determined it was actually a scud extended-range missile, a senior defense official told CNN Wednesday.
In the context of Tillerson's mystifying unwillingness to say or do anything of substance, the statement reads not so much as a threat, but as an admission that Tillerson actually has nothing to say at all.
A senior White House official released a slightly more explicit statement, saying that, "The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table." All options have always been on the table, though saying the clock has run out certainly sounds like an implicit threat. But has the clock run out on North Korea, which has tested nuclear weapons and other ballistic missiles many times before, or has the clock run out on China to solve this problem on Trump's behalf?
Trump has repeatedly said both that China needs to stop North Korea, and that the United States will stop them if China won't. As recently as March 17, he tweeted, "North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!" And he recently told the Financial Times that "China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't. And if they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don't, it won't be good for anyone." This seems to imply that the United States will offer some sort of inducement to Xi for his willingness to get tough(er) on North Korea, but it is more likely that the meeting will have a "tough on China" theme.
Trump will likely pressure Xi to take action against North Korea when they meet this Thursday at Mar-a-Lago -- though it is unclear how Trump would persuade Xi to help in North Korea, while attacking China on every other front. He will push China hard on trade and currency issues, and on the Chinese military presence in the South China Sea. In the context of Trump's long history of scapegoating China for a fictional American economic decline, there is little reason for Xi to help Trump.
Xi, however, already has an incentive to pressure North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. If Kim escalates, it could bring a greater American presence to the region and could result in a Japanese military buildup -- both outcomes Beijing would prefer to avoid. If war were to break out between North Korea and South Korea and the United States, or North Korea and Japan, the outcome would be disastrous for everyone, including China.
China also has an incentive to keep Kim in power. It neither wants a unified Korean peninsula with American and American-allied troops on its border, nor millions of refugees crossing the Chinese border in the event that the Kim government falls due to war or to internal instability.
China may not want to help Trump, but there is no reason to think it condones North Korean escalation.
The Trump Administration needs a coherent strategy to deal with North Korean aggression, which will continue if left unchecked. Unfortunately, many important US government positions remain unstaffed, including assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and US ambassador to South Korea. These individuals could guide American policy and are essential, particularly given the Administration's general inexperience in this region.
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Without proper staffing and expertise, no clear strategy is likely to emerge in the foreseeable future. And even if the Mar-a-Lago summit with Xi appears to go well -- and both sides will surely claim that it does -- there is no guarantee Trump won't send out a flurry of angry or insulting tweets afterward.
Negotiating with China across a broad range of issues and successfully checking North Korean aggression requires experience and depth of knowledge. Unfortunately for the region, it has been left to Trump.