Some news reports recently revealed that a U.S. carrier task force ordered to sail toward waters off North Korea actually went the opposite direction for a few days. The implication was that the incident reflected a lack of competence by the Trump administration or a lack of seriousness about the North Korean problem.
But it turns out that the task force was completing an important earlier assignment before it turned north, and that it may by now be within striking distance of North Korea.
More to the point, the skepticism displayed in the earlier reports failed to take into account the broader picture of the ways in which the Trump administration has been putting steady pressure on North Korea and on China to resolve current tensions through renewed diplomatic talks.
Mr. Trump, in contrast to his three predecessors who wrestled with the Korean problem, has made an appropriately emphatic point that the developing threat is unacceptable.
Moreover, he has shown with his sudden decision to attack a Syrian airbase with cruise missiles that he is willing to use military force if sufficiently provoked. And the first wartime use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal to destroy a complex of caves and tunnels used by Islamic State militants in Afghanistan reinforced that signal.
At the same time, the Trump administration is proceeding with the deployment of an advanced anti-missile system in South Korea and Japan that has a radar powerful enough concern Chinese military planners, who have protested that it is an unwelcome intrusion.
Adding to these pressures are recent reports that among the options being considered by the Trump administration is the re-introduction into South Korea of U.S. nuclear weapons that were previously removed in accordance with an agreement on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula that has since been violated by North Korea.
Vice President Mike Pence, in Japan after a visit to the border between South and North Korea, referred Wednesday to these pressures when he said, “In just the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in the decisive action that he took in Syria and Afghanistan. The enemies of our freedom and this alliance would do well not to test the resolve of this president — or the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the United States of America and our allies.”
The real target of these warnings is China, because Mr. Trump believes that only China can bring enough economic pressure on North Korea to force it to change course, and that China does not want to see the United States use the North Korean threat to increase its military strength in Asia. As a carrot, the president has suggested that a favorable trade pact can be struck with China if it helps put pressure on North Korea.
The idea is to bring North Korea to the negotiating table in a frame of mind ready to make concessions.
The pressure may not succeed. Despite its outspoken opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, China may again decide it fears a North Korean collapse or aggressive action more, and continue to provide the trade and economic lifeline North Korea needs for survival.
But it is worth the effort Mr. Trump is making. As Winston Churchill once said, “To jaw, jaw is always better than to war, war.”