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WASHINGTON — Days before President Trump hosts his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, a top U.S. official warned Tuesday that “the clock has run out” on decades of diplomatic efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and military action may ultimately be necessary.
“The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table for us,” the official told reporters at a briefing held on condition that he not be identified by name.
Hours after those remarks were reported, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast, according to South Korean officials.
Trump will host Xi late this week at his Mar-a-Lago private club in Florida, their first face-to-face talks since the November election. The American president is expected to raise longstanding concerns about what the new administration angrily describes as an unfair bilateral trade relationship and about what is seen in the West Wing as Beijing’s stubborn refusal to do more to contain North Korea’s belligerent behavior.
“It is now urgent, because we feel that the clock is very, very quickly running out,” the official told reporters. “We would have loved to see North Korea join the community of nations. They’ve been given that opportunity over the course of different dialogues and offers over the course of four administrations, with some of our best diplomats and statesmen doing the best they could to bring about a resolution.”
Xi’s willingness to work more closely with Washington on North Korea will be “in some ways, a test of the relationship,” the official said. Trump is expected to press his guest to fully enforce international economic sanctions meant to starve the secretive regime in Pyongyang of resources — and especially hurt the lifestyle of its ruling elites.
In the days and weeks before the high-stakes summit between Trump and Xi, the administration has escalated its rhetoric on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said the threat that country poses is “imminent.” During a trip to Asia, he said Washington is out of “strategic patience” and that “all options are on the table” — a phrase typically understood to refer to military action. In mid-March, Trump said on Twitter that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and complained that “China has done little to help.”
Economic sanctions haven’t deterred North Korea, which announced in January that it could launch an intercontinental ballistic missile “at any time.” The United States responded that it would shoot down any missile, but the back-and-forth demonstrated how international diplomacy and economic sanctions have not worked to date, leaving Trump very few options for facing down an escalating threat.
“North Korea’s growing capability is one of the most significant challenges the next administration will face. There are no simple solutions,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a January speech about nuclear policy. “We must continue working closely with the international community — including China — to convince North Korea to reverse course,” Biden added.
China is the key to North Korea policy because it’s the smaller country’s patron, its source of food and fuel. Beijing doesn’t want North Korea to collapse, which would potentially send refugees streaming into China, to say nothing of raising doubts about the security of the country’s nuclear weapons. It also doesn’t want North and South Korea to reunite, fearing that the result would be a U.S.-aligned country on its borders.
“I think we have to be clear-eyed as to how far China will go and not get overly optimistic as to how far they’ll go,” Tillerson told a January 11 hearing on his confirmation as secretary of state.
“If China is not going to comply with … U.N. sanctions, then it’s appropriate for us — for the United States — to consider actions to compel them to comply,” he added.
That statement raised eyebrows even among some Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who wondered privately how the Trump administration would compel China to do something it considers profoundly risky — choking off trade and therefore risking North Korea’s collapse.
After Pyongyang’s January missile threat, Trump tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
And “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!“ the president-elect added.
During a private post-election meeting in the Oval Office, then president Barack Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be among his most difficult and dangerous challenges, according to two officials briefed on the conversation.
“There’s probably no bilateral relationship that carries more significance and where there’s also the potential if that relationship breaks down or goes into full conflict mode that everybody is worse off,” Obama told reporters in a December press conference.