- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2017

China’s recent move to cut coal imports from North Korea triggered a biting reaction from Pyongyang, but it may fall far short of the tough measures Washington has called for from Beijing, as pressure mounts on President Trump to deliver on his promise to deal “very strongly” with North Korea.

There was fresh urgency on the matter Monday, with Mr. Trump meeting China’s top foreign policy adviser in Washington, the highest-level Beijing official to visit Washington since the inauguration, and other U.S. officials huddling with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts to discuss what the State Department called “North Korea’s flagrant disregard” for U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Reflecting growing anger with the North’s unchecked missile programs, the U.S. on Friday canceled a round of talks scheduled for this week between several North Korean and former U.S. officials in New York. The talks would have been the first of their kind in more than five years on U.S. soil.

The stepped-up activity follows assertions by Malaysian authorities that the exiled half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was assassinated at that nation’s airport with the use of VX nerve agent. The mysterious killing, widely suspected of being the work of North Korean operatives, has prompted calls from some U.S. lawmakers for the Trump administration to ramp up sanctions and declare North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism — a designation Washington lifted in 2008.

The Trump administration is also scrambling to weigh the significance of China’s announcement that it was suspending critical coal imports from its neighbor and traditional ally through the end of the year.

The timing of Beijing’s move — days after Pyongyang made global headlines by testing a medium-range ballistic missile on Feb. 12 — initially suggested a major Chinese policy shift toward North Korea might be underway. But Chinese officials have since suggested that the real reason for their announcement was that Beijing had already reached its U.N.-mandated quota on coal imports from North Korea for the year.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Friday that the U.N. limits had motivated Beijing more than anything else. “According to our statistics, China has already approached the upper limits of coal imports from North Korea,” he said. “So because of this, we have stopped imports of coal from North Korea with a responsible attitude.”

Mr. Geng’s comments have prompted some to take a second look at China’s announcement.

“On the surface, it would seem like this was the long-hoped-for action from China,” Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said Monday. “But, like much of what has occurred from China with regard to North Korea over the years, the reality was less than hoped for.”

Unclear U.S. response

It’s unclear where the Trump administration stands on the matter. Mr. Klingner said the U.S. government should move quickly to “augment and enforce” punitive actions that “the Obama administration did only timidly” to encourage Beijing to lean on Pyongyang.

“That would include expanding third-party economic sanctions against Chinese companies found to be violating U.S. law by [doing business with North Korea],” Mr. Klingner said. “Contrary to the Obama administration’s assertion that North Korea had become the most sanctioned nation on earth, we’re still pulling our punches.”

Beijing remains fearful of the chaos and a potential refugee crisis that may ensue should North Korea’s Kim regime collapse too quickly, but Pyongyang’s rapid progress toward acquiring a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland is posing an immediate national security challenge for Mr. Trump.

While North Korean officials and state media have so far steered clear of directly criticizing the new U.S. president, Pyongyang signaled its determination to advance its nuclear and missile programs by testing of a new type of ballistic missile just weeks after Mr. Trump took office.

Although the administration’s response to the Feb. 12 test was initially muted, Mr. Trump later called North Korea a “big, big problem” and vowed to deal with it “very strongly.”

Tensions are expected to rise as U.S. military forces begin annual joint exercises with South Korea in March. The drills usually provoke warlike rhetoric and threats from Pyongyang, which views them as a rehearsal for an invasion across the militarized border between the two Koreas.

But there is still considerable uncertainty over how the administration will proceed. More than a month into his term, Mr. Trump has yet to name anyone to several key Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council leadership positions overseeing the policy.

Joseph Yun, the current U.S. special representative for North Korea policy — a career Foreign Service officer and Obama administration appointee — huddled at the State Department with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to discuss the situation.

The State Department said in a statement afterward that the three “expressed their joint view that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs directly threaten the security of [South Korea], Japan and the United States.”

While the statement made no reference to China, it suggested that the three also discussed ways to ramp up sanctions against North Korea, perhaps even by targeting Chinese companies.

The White House issued an equally broad assessment of Mr. Trump’s meeting Monday with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the U.S. since Mr. Trump took office five weeks ago. Mr. Yang led a six-member delegation in talks first with Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, senior Trump adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and others.

The two sides “discussed shared interests in national security,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said without elaborating.

Mr. Klingner said Monday that, “right now, we don’t know what the administration’s policy will be toward North Korea.”

Despite the administration’s posturing, it has “been several weeks since the North Koreans carried out their recent ballistic missile test and we still don’t have a policy response,” he said.

“To be fair to the administration, it takes a while to get going. But, that being said, the world doesn’t wait,” said Mr. Klingner. “North Korea doesn’t like to be ignored. While the administration is getting its ducks in a row, the North Koreans are taking action.”

He compared the situation to President Obama’s first months in office in 2009.

“During the early months of the administration, when they were still doing their review of North Korea policy in 2009, in April of that year, North Korea did a long-range missile test, and then in May they did a nuclear test.”

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