The U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base on April 6 during the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at which North Korea's nuclear weapons program was a topic at hand, no doubt sent a clear message to Beijing about the United States' willingness to use military force. Following the strike, the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group was rerouted toward the Korean Peninsula, making that message even more explicit. At a time when the United States is reviewing its policy in dealing with North Korea, the deployment both ramps up military pressure on Pyongyang and broadens U.S. options in the region.
However, the prospect of unilateral military action against North Korea has unnerved U.S. allies. Both Japan and South Korea have expressed concerns about a possible U.S. strike aimed at derailing North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The Japanese Defense Ministry says Tokyo has not been informed of any preparations for an attack and said it would raise objections if it gets indications of a pending attack. The government in Seoul also appeared jittery about the safety and security risks that a preemptive strike would pose.
As the United States considers ways to thwart Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile programs, a military response remains a credible option, but one that could invite highly costly consequences. Unlike in Syria, Washington cannot assume that North Korea would not respond to an attack in kind. A retaliatory North Korean artillery strike against the South or assaults on U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan could easily spiral into a wider regional conflict. If a U.S. strike takes place without first consulting China, Beijing's reactions could cause further complications.
And as North Korea's nuclear infrastructure becomes more sophisticated, it grows more difficult to design a military campaign that could eliminate the entire program and facilities, especially in the absence of credible intelligence. Those challenges repeatedly plagued successive U.S. administrations, long delaying any use of force by the United States to deter North Korea. In 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton considered military action against the North, coming the closest any U.S. president has come, but he opted instead to engage in talks in an effort to thwart Pyongyang's nuclear program. North Korea's test of a long-range rocket in 1998 and a new U.S. tone under President George W. Bush's administration in 2001 brought an end to that approach.
With its recent moves, the Trump White House is delivering an ultimatum to the Chinese to either work with the United States in stopping North Korea's drive for a nuclear deterrent or deal with the consequences of U.S. action on secondary sanctions as it develops a credible military option and enlarges its military footprint in the region. Beijing, for its part, continues to urge diplomacy, but it also has shown some willingness to increase pressure on the North as it aims to ease Washington's challenges on trade and on other fronts and simultaneously reassesses its options against Pyongyang.
During an April 10 visit to South Korea by Wu Dawei, China's special envoy in charge of dealing with North Korea's nuclear program, both sides reportedly agreed to adopt "an even stronger U.N. resolution" in the event that the North conducts an additional test of a nuclear weapon. However, any Chinese action in dealing with North Korea will stop short of creating instability in North Korea by cutting Pyongyang's economic lifeline. But as Beijing struggles with its unpredictable and increasingly recalcitrant neighbor, even those in Chinese policy circles are beginning consider a different approach, including a possible decapitation strategy, to bring North Korea's leadership to heel.