President Trump on Tuesday appeared to lose faith in China's ability to pressure North Korea to curb its abusive behavior, throwing into question how his administration plans to contain the rogue nation's growing nuclear threat.
A day after American college student Otto Warmbier, who spent 17 months in captivity in Pyongyang, died in his home town of Cincinnati, Trump called his treatment “a total disgrace” and suggested he has given up hope that Beijing can exert meaningful leverage on dictator Kim Jong Un's regime.
The president's declaration marks a potential turn in his administration's strategy on North Korea, which had focused on ramping up international economic and political pressure on Kim, especially from China, on which North Korea's economy relies heavily. Trump had personally lobbied Chinese President Xi Jinping to take stronger action on Chinese banks and other entities that do business with North Korea during a summit in Florida in April. The president went so far as to say he would not take stronger steps on China over trade disputes in part because of Xi's willingness to help on North Korea.
Trump also had opened the door for potential direct talks with Kim, saying in an interview two months ago that he'd be “honored” to meet the North Korean leader under the right circumstances. But Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the White House is “clearly moving further away” from engagement in the wake of Warmbier's death.
“It should never, ever be allowed to happen,” Trump said of Warmbier's experience and death during brief remarks in the Oval Office, before sideswiping the efforts his predecessor Barack Obama’s administration to free Warmbier: “And frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the results would have been a lot different.”
Foreign policy experts have questioned China's willingness and ability to alter the Kim regime's behavior.
“I think they have limited capacity to do something, and I think they feel the weight of expectations beginning to burden them,” said Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. delegation in the six-party talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration.
“Now the problem is they are really at a loss to come up with something short of direct action, which they were never prepared to engage in. I'm sure there's a lot of serious thinking in China on this. It's important for the Trump administration to keep the heat on.”