President Trump’s top security aides will host an unusual White House briefing on North Korea for the entire U.S. Senate on Wednesday amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and pressure on Washington to organize an effective response to Pyongyang’s increasingly brazen military provocations and nuclear tests.
While North Korea’s nuclear program has been a security headache for the U.S. and its allies for decades, the gathering Wednesday coincides with a concerted Trump administration push to change the calculus of U.S. strategy amid growing concern as North Korea rushes to develop an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could threaten allies such as South Korea and Japan and reach the American homeland.
With the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un dramatically increasing its missile and nuclear tests in recent years, Vice President Mike Pence said on a visit to the region last week that, under Mr. Trump, the “era of strategic patience” — a reference to Washington’s long-held policy of trying to pressure Pyongyang through sanctions and diplomacy — “is over.”
The administration has backed the assertion by shifting more U.S. military assets, including the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier battle group, toward the Korean Peninsula. The USS Michigan submarine docked Tuesday in South Korea just as the North carried out major live-fire exercises to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the isolated nation’s military.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson will help brief senators in a secure room of the White House on Wednesday and is slated to chair a special ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the North Korea crisis on Friday.
The White House meeting represents the administration’s attempt to drum up support for Mr. Trump’s desire for a clear resolution to the North Korean threat, although it is not clear if any major policy revelations are planned.
The briefers will include Mr. Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford.
Such rare private briefings of the whole Senate by four Cabinet officials are normally held in a secure auditorium on Capitol Hill, not at the White House. That has sparked speculation that the administration is testing the appetite on Capitol Hill for the potential use of preemptive airstrikes against North Korea.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News last week that the U.S. is prepared to launch such strikes if officials become convinced that Pyongyang is about to carry out another nuclear test. North Korea has conducted five successful tests since 2006, and there are signs that it is preparing the ground for a sixth.
Mr. Trump’s statements on Twitter and in recent interviews on the North Korea crisis have contributed to the mounting sense that the administration is pushing to change the status quo.
“North Korea is looking for trouble,” the president tweeted this month. “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer sought to cool some of the talk over impending U.S. military action. He suggested last week that Mr. Trump was considering force against North Korea — perhaps without explicit congressional approval — but said Tuesday that the Senate meeting will be more broadly focused.
He said the gathering was conceived and will be led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who will be “just utilizing our space” at the White House.
“We’re not there to talk strategy,” Mr. Spicer said, although he added that “Chairman Dunford will lay out some of the military actions and the way that they see the lay of the land.”
Intensifying the focus
It’s unclear whether Mr. Trump will be participating, but there were signs Tuesday that the president’s focus on North Korea would intensify in the coming weeks to the point that he has little time to host foreign leaders.
The president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, has postponed a visit he was hoping to make to the White House before the end of the month. Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek told a Czech public television show Tuesday that the trip was put off because “North Korean crisis fully dominates the planning of President Trump’s schedule.”
Some foreign policy analysts have argued that Mr. Trump’s focus on North Korea fits with his wider desire to reshape the overall U.S. relationship with China, North Korea’s main ally. Beijing has frustrated several U.S. administrations by failing to take a tough enough hand against North Korea, for fear of the social and strategic consequences of the collapse of the Kim regime.
Hawkish Republican senators are using the White House meeting to push Beijing to fall in with Mr. Trump’s tougher line — something Mr. Trump says is already happening. China offered backing for some of the economic sanctions that the Obama administration pursued against North Korea as punishment for nuclear tests that Pyongyang carried out last year.
In February, China announced that it was reducing critical North Korean coal imports through the end of this year, but analysts said the move was largely symbolic.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, suggested Tuesday that the Trump administration should be far more aggressive in pressuring the Chinese to dissuade North Korea from carrying out further missile and nuclear tests.
“For years, the United States has looked at China, North Korea’s long-term patron and sole strategic ally, to bring the regime to the negotiating table and achieve progress toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” Mr. McCain said at a hearing. “But China has repeatedly refused to exercise that influence.”
Mr. McCain said he welcomes the Trump administration’s continuation of the Obama-era policy of reaching out to China on North Korea. “But,” he said, “as these discussions continue, the United States should be clear that while we earnestly seek China’s cooperation we do not seek [it] at the expense of our vital interests.”
Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Armed Services Committee hearing that the Trump administration is wise to be shifting Washington’s calculus away from the era of “strategic patience.”
“Between 1994 and 2008, North Korea did 16 ballistic missile tests and one nuclear test,” said Mr. Cha. “Since January of 2009, they have done 71 missile tests, including four nuclear tests.
“The leader of North Korea has made no effort to have dialogue with any other country in the region, not just the United States, but that includes China, South Korea, Russia,” he said. He has “absolutely no interest in talking.”
“There is nothing that I see that suggests North Korea is going to slow down the pace of its testing,” said Mr. Cha, asserting that China is still not doing enough to resolve the crisis.
“China still subsidizes, even if they cut coal, they still subsidize 85 percent of North Korea’s external trade,” he said. “They are not willing to really put the sort of pressure that will impose economic costs on North Korea for going down this path.”