'Time for talk is over': US grapples for new approach on North Korea

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Story highlights

  • North Korea and the US have not had official talks for years
  • Washington has sought to bring pressure to bear on Pyongyang through Beijing

Hong Kong (CNN)Washington will not seek UN Security Council action following North Korea's latest missile test, according to US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who says that the "the time for talk is over."

North Korea's test of a long-range missile Friday that could potentially hit major US cities drew condemnation from the US, China, Japan and South Korea, and calls for a rethinking in tactics toward Pyongyang, given the dramatic escalation in its capabilities.
    North Korea "is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity," Haley said Sunday.
    It was a seemingly stark admission -- the US ambassador to the UN suggesting the North Korean crisis couldn't be solved through diplomatic channels in the Security Council.
    Analysts said that Haley's comments publicly undermined the Security Council, which has been at the forefront of sanctions that have attempted to contain North Korea's nuclear and missile program, albeit with little success.
    "Problem is she makes herself and the UN process irrelevant if she says there's nothing we can do here," said John Delury, an expert on Chinese-Korean relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "Then we stop listening to her and the UN becomes totally (pointless)."
    Instead, Haley pointed to China, saying Beijing "must decide if it is finally willing to take this vital step" of challenging Pyongyang.
    Haley's comments echoed President Donald Trump on Saturday, who said he was "very disappointed in China."
    "Our foolish past leaders have allowed (Beijing) to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk," Trump tweeted.

    China's response

    China is hitting back.
    When asked to respond to Trump's tweets and Haley's remarks, China's ambassador to the United Nations criticized what he called "language and action from elsewhere that heightens tension talking about 'all options on the table'."
    Liu Jieyi said the US and North Korea were the principal parties to peace and stability in the Korean peninsula, not China.
    "People talk about China a lot," said Liu. "If the two principal parties refuse towards what is required by the Security Council resolution -- de-escalation of tension, negotiations to achieve de-escalation and peace and stability and also to resume dialogue -- then, no matter how capable China is, China's efforts will not yield practical results because it depends on the two principal parties.
    "They hold the primary responsibility to keep things moving... not China."
    Liu also referred to the US missile defense test Sunday, saying the move had strategic implications for the region.
    Separately, in a written response Monday to CNN, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not directly address Trump's message, but reiterated Beijing's long-standing positions on North Korea.
    "China has fulfilled its responsibility in promoting a proper resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue and our efforts have been clear for all to see. The issue was not caused by China and its resolution requires multilateral efforts," he said.
    On Monday, Trump spoke to his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, committing to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea.
    Vice President Mike Pence said "all options are on the table" when it comes to North Korea, as the US sent two B-1 bombers from Guam on a 10-hour round trip over the Korean Peninsula.
    Friday's North Korean test was deemed more advanced than the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched on July 4 and marks a big step forward from a country once deemed incapable of putting forward a serious ICBM program.
    Some experts have expressed skepticism over the total range, pointing out that the payload of the missile is unknown. The heavier the payload, the shorter the usual range.
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    No good option

    Under Trump, the United States has shifted its focus to pressuring China to rein in North Korea.
    Both the diplomatic and the China-centric avenues still have their proponents.
    Some analysts argue sanctions have not been targeted correctly or wide enough, and others -- including US administration officials -- say sanctions should go after Chinese interests as a means of forcing Beijing's hand on North Korea.
    Speaking last week, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of the State Department's East Asia bureau, said, "The Chinese are now very clear that we're going to go after Chinese entities, if need be."
    While China is North Korea's primary trading partner, and trade between the countries may be increasing even as Beijing cuts coal and other exports, analysts have questioned whether economic pressure could ever thwart Pyongyang's military ambitions given the primacy the regime places on the nuclear program in terms of ensuring its survival.
    The Obama and Trump administrations have placed great weight on Beijing acting to contain its neighbor and longtime ally, but some analysts warn assumptions about China's influence on the North Korean regime may be out of date.
    "Beijing's channels to Pyongyang are frayed, they're weak," Delury said.
    "President Trump's tweets reflect this inherited Obama view that the road to Pyongyang leads through Beijing -- that's a dead end."
    Mike Chinoy, author of "Meltdown: Inside the North Korean nuclear crisis," told CNN last year many high-level North Koreans "resent the hell out of the Chinese. They hate the idea that the Chinese can come in and tell them what to do. And the reality is the Chinese can't."

    Time for talks?

    If sanctions have proven ineffective and China doesn't have as much influence as Washington makes out, that leaves two previously unpalatable options on the table -- military action, or negotiating directly with North Korea.
    While some in the US administration, including CIA chief Mike Pompeo, have signaled support for regime change in Pyongyang, the risks of that devolving into civil war and chaos are great, and State Department officials have said the option is not on the table.
    The risks of a military strike or all out conflict with North Korea are even greater, with US Defense Secretary James Mattis warning last month it could result in tragedy "on an unbelievable scale."
    "The time to launch a preventative war is before they have a nuclear armed ICBM," arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis said on his podcast last week.
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    That leaves diplomacy. Since the six-party talks -- involving North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States -- ended in failure more than a decade ago, multiple US administrations have refused to return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang unless the regime agrees to give up its nuclear program.
    That approach is looking increasingly absurd, Lewis pointed out. "We've consistently had this idea that the North Koreans are a joke and we don't have to give them anything," he said. "People were wrong about that, the North Koreans didn't get strong armed (at the six-party talks), they built nuclear weapons, and now they've built an ICBM."
    Jon Wolfsthal, a former national security adviser to Obama, said last week the United States may have to give up on denuclearizing North Korea.
    "As much as I would like North Korea to freeze and end its nuclear program, no combination of threats, engagement, negotiations, and sanctions, has produced that outcome," he wrote.
    Instead, Wolfsthal said the US should move toward a policy of deterring Pyongyang from ever using its weapons: "The Trump administration must communicate directly with its North Korean counterparts to ensure they have a clear understanding of what actions would provoke a direct US response."
    Speaking Sunday, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged the Trump administration "to begin some very serious negotiation with the North and stop this program."
    Delury said the US "needs to open up high level channels directly with with Pyongyang, as direct to Kim Jong Un as possible, and work it from there."
    Doing so may prove as difficult as other approaches however. South Korea invited North Korea to begin joint military talks this month -- they never got an answer.
    Moon Sang-gyun, spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, said Monday that invitation remained: "The military's stance of strongly responding to North Korea's provocations hasn't changed a single bit. But I'd like to say that doors are always open for dialogue."