WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump discussed North Korea’s strongest nuclear test yet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, as the U.S. proposed crippling new sanctions and world leaders tussled over whether pressure or dialogue was the best way to rein in the rogue nation.
The White House stressed the U.S. and Chinese leaders’ joint commitment to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. But differences were clear on how best to reach that remote goal as fears escalate over Pyongyang’s emerging capability to strike America with a nuclear-tipped missile.
China’s state news agency said Xi expressed China’s adamant position about “resolving the nuclear issue through talks.” Trump noted China’s “essential role” and pledged more communication with China “to find a solution as early as possible,” Xinhua reported.
But Trump projected an entirely different message on dialogue in a phone call a day earlier with British Prime Minister Theresa May. The American leader declared “now is not the time to talk to North Korea,” according to a White House readout, released shortly before Trump’s call with Xi.
The conversations were part of a flurry of calls Trump has made to world leaders after North Korea’s test explosion this weekend of what it called a hydrogen bomb. Trump said the U.S. is considering all options to defend itself and allies.
While Washington needs backing from allies, co-operation with traditional adversaries China and Russia is more significant. The U.S. needs both to put the squeeze on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Both are economic partners of North Korea and veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
On Wednesday, the U.S. circulated a draft Security Council resolution that would ban all oil and natural gas exports to North Korea, potentially devastating its economy. The measure also would freeze all of the North’s and Kim’s foreign financial assets, and outlaw North Korean textiles exports. Countries also would be prevented from hiring and paying North Korean workers.
But Beijing and Moscow’s support for such tough action was doubtful.
“President Xi would like to do something,” Trump told reporters after a 45-minute call with the Chinese leader. “We’ll see whether or not he can do it. But we will not be putting up with what’s happening in North Korea. I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100 per cent. He doesn’t want to see what’s happening there, either.”
Asked if he was considering military action against North Korea, Trump told reporters: “Certainly that’s not our first choice, but we will see what happens.”
As Trump looked to increase the pressure, Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed in the opposite direction, warning against cornering Pyongyang.
The North’s nuclear test “flagrantly violates” international law, Putin said, but he urged talks and not more sanctions.
“We should not give in to emotions and push Pyongyang into a corner,” Putin said after meeting the president of close U.S. ally, South Korea, in Russia on Wednesday. “As never before, everyone should show restraint and refrain from steps leading to escalation and tensions.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s military, diplomacy and intelligence chiefs briefed Congress on the North Korean threat and U.S. strategy to address it. Democrats accused the administration of sending confusing signals to adversaries and allies.
“The message changes from day to day and for myself, I’m not quite sure what the policy is,” Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said. He said he learned nothing from the closed-doors briefing by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats that he hadn’t already read in newspapers.
“There is an unbelievable disconnect between the people in that room and their boss,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, another Democrat, said. “And that freaks the hell out of me.”
Trump traded threats with Pyongyang last month after it conducted two long-range missile tests. At one point, he warned of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea continued its threats. At another, he credited Kim for a brief pause in missile tests that ended days later.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, backed Trump and said he may be employing a “good cop, bad cop” approach. Pressuring China and North Korea could force negotiations for a peaceful solution.
Otherwise, he said, “war is the next inevitable option.”