Can tough-talking Trump solve North Korea?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo / AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo / AP

President Donald Trump is suggesting ahead of his meeting later this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping that he can handle Washington's North Korea problem with or without Beijing's help - "totally". Is the self-proclaimed master of the deal doing what he does best - talking up his game? Even Trump said going it alone is not his Plan A. Trump stressed in an interview with the Financial Times that he'd rather - much rather, actually - have Beijing on board. China, he noted, has the most influence over the North economically and politically.

But can he sway Beijing into doing more of what Washington wants? The big meeting is set to take place at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Friday and Saturday.

Here's a closer look at some of the rhetoric being tossed around, by Trump in the interview released on Monday, and by a top US official:

Trump: "China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don't it won't be good for anyone."

The context: China is without doubt a lifeline for North Korea. It accounts for about 90 per cent of the North's trade and is a key supplier of fuel and many of the other necessities that keep the North's economy running. If Beijing were to aggressively clamp down on all its trade with Pyongyang, North Korea would certainly feel the pain - and possibly collapse. The question, however, is what Trump means by "help". Sanctions advocates in the US believe that with just the right amount of pressure, North Korea can be coerced into giving up its nuclear weapons. But that's not a certainty. Too much pressure could also lead to open conflict, causing tremendous numbers of casualties and deaths and wrecking the Chinese, South Korean and Japanese - and by extension US - economies. A North Korean implosion, meanwhile, could be even more problematic, causing a massive refugee crisis.

Trump: According to the Financial Times report, when pressed on whether the US really could resolve the North Korean denuclearisation problem without China, he said, "Totally ... I don't have to say any more. Totally."

The context: So there it is, the tease. If Trump does have a dramatic solution to this problem, it will have to be pretty clever. And the stakes are extremely high. Back in 1994, President Bill Clinton considered a pre-emptive strike to take out North Korea's nuclear weapons' building capability. That was ruled out as too risky. He chose negotiations, and those failed, too, after President George W. Bush took over. Fast forward to today, and North Korea has a nuclear arsenal. It may already be able to hit Japan with nuclear warheads. It could be just a few years away from having an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Whatever Trump has in mind, any change in the status quo that comes about without China's participation, or Russia's, is likely to antagonise North Korea's two nuclear-armed neighbours. Trump may not need to tell a newspaper what his plan is. But if he's got one, leaders across Asia are all ears.

And ps, from your UN ambassador: Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, also had some tough talk over the weekend - but it conflicted with the President's.

She said on ABC's This Week that China needs "to show us how concerned they are ... They need to put pressure on North Korea. The only country that can stop North Korea is China, and they know that."

The context: If Haley is right and China is the only country that can stop North Korea, it stands to reason that the US can't resolve this issue alone. And no one expects it to do so. UN resolutions and unilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea have so far failed to deter it from conducting nuclear and missile tests. Last year, the North conducted two nuclear tests and two dozen tests of ballistic missiles. During his swing through Asia last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the past 20 years of US policy toward North Korea have been a failure. In fact, that could be extended all the way back to President Truman and the Korean War, which - thanks to China's decision to back the North - ended not in a peace treaty in 1953 but in an armistice. So what would the US actually do if China doesn't cooperate? "China has to cooperate," Haley said.

- AP

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