- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2017

TOKYO — One of the country’s most scarred veterans of the campaign to contain North Korea says he is now “guardedly optimistic” that China will ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang in a bid to force its isolated ally back to the negotiating table.

Joseph R. DeTrani, the former U.S. special envoy to the failed multilateral talks with North Korea, offered the assessment on a visit to Japan this week, just days after President Trump made headlines in this part of the world by saying he would “be honored” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances — after a prolonged display of U.S. military might in reaction to Pyongyang’s aggressive military moves.

China is key to any breakthrough, according to Mr. DeTrani, who said during an unofficial meeting with several members of the Japanese Diet, or parliament, that Beijing has the power to get Pyongyang “to halt its nuclear programs and to enter into denuclearization talks.”

“China has the levers,” he said, noting that 85 percent to 90 percent of North Korean trade, including its supply of fuel and food depends on Chinese entities — and that, even as China seeks to avoid volatility on its border with North Korea, Beijing’s greater concern is a total regional security meltdown stemming from open warfare on the heavily armed Korean peninsula.

“Certainly, China doesn’t want a North Korea with nuclear weapons on its border that’s going to lend itself to instability, not only the [Korean] Peninsula, but in the region,” said Mr. DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as the State Department’s special envoy for six-party talks with North Korea prior to their breakdown in 2009.

His comments come as the Trump administration pushes a new, more assertive strategy toward North Korea amid growing concern over Pyongyang’s rush to develop an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could threaten U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea and even reach the American homeland.

The CIA on Wednesday announced the creation of a new “Korea Mission Center” to focus on the crisis in the region. The center according to an agency statement, will “harness the full resources, capabilities and authorities of the agency in addressing the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea.”

And new Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a Senate hearing Thursday that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses a potentially “existential” threat to the United States, declining to say how close Pyongyang is to being able to strike the U.S. mainland.

Added CIA Director Mike Pompeo, also testifying at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing: “I don’t see anything that should make us feel any better about [the North Korean] threat.” 

Vice President Mike Pence on a visit to the region last month said that the “era of strategic patience” — a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to pressure Pyongyang — “is over.” But despite the military displays, the Trump administration so far appears to be following much the same blueprint. 

North Korea has conducted five successful nuclear tests since 2006, and analysts say there are signs it’s preparing now for a sixth.

China did back some of the economic sanctions pursued by the Obama administration against North Korea for two nuclear tests last year. China has also said it will reduce some North Korean coal imports through the end of this year, something CIA officials say has already begun.

Mr. DeTrani praised Mr. Trump for putting “all options” on the table. The former nuclear negotiator, who appeared in Tokyo as part of a bipartisan delegation of former U.S. officials and members of Congress, said the threat from Pyongyang is real.

North Korea could have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the whole of the U.S. mainland within one to three years and be an “existential nuclear threat to the United States, as they currently are to Japan and South Korea” within three to five years, Mr. DeTrani said.

“By the year 2020,” he said, “North Korea could have over 100 nuclear weapons.”

But he also stressed that the serious alternative to a pre-emptive U.S. military strike against Pyongyang must involve “coming back to fair negotiations” with North Korean officials — talks that would only be possible if a firm set of preconditions were adhered to by Pyongyang.

“We don’t negotiate while you’re trying to intimidate us with missile launches and nuclear tests and we’re not going back to talks until you stop that,” said Mr. DeTrani. “We’re talking about comprehensive verifiable denuclearization. That’s seems fair and I think this is what [President Trump] has put on the table.”

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