Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday called on President Donald Trump to increase pressure on North Korea and China, after Pyongyang announced its first-ever test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.
Trump said little about the latest international provocation that will further complicate his meetings with world leaders later this week at the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany. He started the Fourth of July in his comfort zone, at the Trump National Golf Club.
On Monday night, in a pair of almost playful tweets poking at the North Korean dictator and calling out his neighbors, Trump expressed hope that China’s President Xi Jingping would take the lead against North Korea.
“North Korea has just launched another missile,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
But that response didn’t cut it for lawmakers of both parties, as well as experts in the region, who on Tuesday demanded a more fulsome reaction from the White House, and a real strategy related to both China and North Korea, to deal with the first-ever ICBM test.
“Instead of vague Twitter bluster, President Trump should answer North Korea’s dangerous test with a coherent strategy of direct diplomacy with Pyongyang and increased economic sanctions pressure from China,” said Sen. Edward Markey, who is the top Democrat on the East Asia Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Each additional test will bring North Korea closer to the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon to American cities.”
Added Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces: “We must bring greater pressure to bear on North Korea, and its international patrons, China and Russia…. But we should have no illusions that they will solve this problem for us.”
Other lawmakers reacted on Twitter, calling for a stronger response. “House acted to increase sanctions; a good first step but more must be done,” tweeted Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat, called for “additional pressure on China” in a holiday appearance on CNN’s New Day.
On Tuesday, the White House did not say whether it had coordinated with U.S. allies, or whether it was taking any steps to respond to the regime. A State Department spokeswoman said on Twitter that the “State Dept is working w interagency partners on a detailed assessment of #DPRK missile launch” but did not elaborate on any other steps taken.
The ongoing silence from the White House on Tuesday was in line with how the administration has reacted in the past to North Korea’s missile tests.
In April, after North Korea fired an intermediate range ballistic missile into the sea off of the Korean peninsula, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a bizarrely cryptic message in response: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea,” he said. “We have no further comment.”
The strategy has flummoxed experts following the region. “There really is a value to communicating resolve and unity with our allies,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an expert on nuclear security. “The Trump administration has blustered at times, and at other times they’ve appeared to take the military option off the table.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in April that the administration hopes not to use military force to respond to North Korea.
“If they have a strategy, I’ve seen no evidence of it,” said Mount. “They’ve been contradictory on nearly every plank of their stated strategy.”
Projecting a confusing strategy is, actually, Trump’s strategy, according to White House officials, who often talk about how the president likes to keep foreign nations guessing on his actions. “You’re not going to see him telegraphing how he’s going to respond to any military or other situation going forward,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in April, while answering questions about possible responses to North Korea.
In early January, weeks before his inauguration, Trump said on Twitter that he would prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States — the very weapon that was thought to be tested on Monday. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.,” the president-elect tweeted on Jan. 2. “It won’t happen!”
The latest test comes days ahead of Trump’s high-stakes meetings at the G-20, where he will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean president Moon Jae-In, and Xi.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has applied sanctions on a Chinese bank, a Chinese company and two individuals in an effort to ratchet up pressure on the world superpower to crack down on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The pressure, so far, has only increased tension between the United States and China but has not appeared to show any movement in China’s actions toward North Korea. The New York Times reported on Monday that Trump told Xi in a phone call that he was prepared to take on North Korea alone if necessary.
On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers said it wasn’t enough. “I commend the Trump Administration for its sanctions last week against entities aiding Pyongyang, including a Chinese financial institution, but this should be only a first step,” Sen. Cory Gardner said in a statement Tuesday. “If China fails to act, as it has to date, its relationship with the United States cannot remain the same…. We need to use every diplomatic and economic tool we have now to prevent nuclear war.”
Experts in the region said the administration needs to look elsewhere for help, including South Korea, given China’s intransigence to be an ally when it comes to the North.
“I’m not convinced Trump ever learned the value of an alliance,” said Mount. “We’re in a world where we have to deter and contain North Korea over the long run. If you’re looking to tighten economic pressure on North Korea, you need a partner. Seoul should be the first stop, not Beijing.”