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North Korea pulled back its threat to attack a U.S. territory, after days of trading increasingly bellicose rhetoric with U.S. President Donald Trump, and hours after China took its toughest steps against Pyongyang to support U.N. sanctions.
North Korean state media said Tuesday that Kim Jong Un had made his decision not to fire on Guam after visiting a military command post and examining a military plan presented to him by his senior officers. But it warned that he could change his mind “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.”
The turnabout came as the U.S. and China were engaged in a delicate contest on two fronts, with each trying to push the other to handle the North Korea situation in the way it preferred, even while both sparred over trade issues that they insisted were unrelated.
Beijing said it would ban imports of North Korean coal, iron and seafood, starting Tuesday, measures that hew to sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council this month targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear-arms program. The timing of the announcement was a response to Mr. Trump’s plans to kick off a probe into China’s alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property, according to people with knowledge of the Chinese leadership’s thinking. That probe was officially announced later on Monday.
“This action on North Korea should help ease the renewed trade tensions,” a government adviser involved in making policy said. China had been expected to disclose such steps and said in an official statement that its move was made to enforce the latest U.N. sanctions.
Beijing’s move on North Korean imports followed a weekend phone call between Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on how to deal with North Korea’s advances in developing nuclear weapons and missiles.
Mr. Trump on Friday warned that U.S. military resources were in place, “locked and loaded,” should North Korea “act unwisely.”
North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program has advanced rapidly, and a missile test in late July put the continental U.S. firmly in range of a strike. Pyongyang this month threatened to lob missiles toward the Pacific island of Guam.
The advances have prompted questions about whether Mr. Kim’s regime obtained Soviet-designed rocket engines. The liquid-propellant rocket engines North Korea has been using in recent tests were probably acquired through illicit channels originating in Ukraine or Russia, a report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said Monday.
Stephen Noerper, a professor of political science at Columbia University and senior director at the Korea Society, warned tensions on the Korean peninsula were liable to quickly ramp up again, given upcoming joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea slated to begin next week in South Korea.
“I don’t think we should overassume,” he said. “The escalatory nature of things on the peninsula are that you can go from zero to 10 very quickly…This could get very hot again.”
Earlier on Monday in Seoul, before news of Mr. Kim’s decision, Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. must take threats from North Korea seriously, despite fresh skepticism from South Korea that Pyongyang has the ability to reliably deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile to the U.S.
“I honestly think it’s an academic issue whether it can happen today or happen tomorrow,” Gen. Dunford told reporters after wrapping up meetings with South Korea’s president and other defense officials.
Gen. Dunford noted that North Korea had conducted missile and nuclear tests “at a historic rate”—at least 15 tests in the past year.
But uncertainty remains about the North’s ability to endanger the American homeland or even Guam.
Those doubts were underscored Sunday by a senior South Korean defense official, who said that both Seoul and Washington had concluded Pyongyang lacks the missile re-entry technology to successfully launch an intercontinental ballistic missile at the continental U.S.
John Delury, a China historian and North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said Mr. Kim’s decision was likely a response to more tempered language from the Trump administration over the weekend, including from Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretaries of State and Defense Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis.
“The signaling from the Trump administration dialed it down a notch—we have to give them credit,” Mr. Delury said. Referring to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Mr. Delury added, “When’s the last time the secretary of state and the secretary of defense wrote an op-ed together?”
Mr. Trump’s move on Monday was part of an effort to juggle Washington’s competing policy goals with China, balancing the desire for more cooperation in controlling North Korea against a desire to curb the $347 billion bilateral trade deficit.
Mr. Trump made no mention of China’s import ban while at the White House signing ceremony on Monday in which he directed aides to explore the prospect of sanctioning Beijing for the “unfair” acquisition of American technology. He also offered no indication that tensions with China had eased: He said as he signed the directive that “this is just the beginning.”
The directive was the first formal China trade action taken by a president who has long blasted the country for improperly aggressive commercial practices.
“We will stand up to any country that unlawfully forces American companies to transfer their valuable technology as a condition of market access,” Mr. Trump said, echoing a complaint made frequently by U.S. firms seeking entry to the world’s second largest economy. “The theft of intellectual property by foreign countries costs our nation millions of jobs and billions and billions of dollars each and every year,” he added.
While Mr. Trump’s tone was tough, the process he launched was measured.
He specifically ordered his trade representative to begin a study into whether to launch a formal investigation about complaints that Beijing forces multinationals to license valuable technology to Chinese companies as the price of entry into China’s markets. Aides said if the investigation does proceed, it could take a year before any decisions are made on imposing trade sanctions.
Mr. Trump has said he would cut Beijing slack over trade disputes if he felt the Chinese were being helpful in reining in Pyongyang. But there is a difference of opinion within the administration on whether to keep economic and security issues on separate tracks, said a person who was briefed on the process of formulating Monday’s China order.
The White House had originally planned to unveil the China probe in early August, but put the announcement off until after China voted on Aug. 5 in support of the Security Council resolution on North Korea, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Asked whether the White House was linking its handling of China trade pressure with the North Korea issue, a senior administration official said “these are totally unrelated events.”
China, too, separated the issues. “The North Korean nuclear issue and the China-U.S. trade issue are totally different and it is not appropriate to use one as a tool to keep pressure on the other issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday before the move to curb North Korean imports.
She said China has been improving its regulations on intellectual property rights, while boosting social awareness of the issue.
North Korean state media didn’t immediately comment on China’s announcement.
China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner, accounting for more than 80% of North Korea’s external trade for the past five years.
China has long shied away from severe punitive steps, such as cutting off fuel and food supplies, that could trigger the collapse of the North Korean regime.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly questioned China’s willingness to ratchet up pressure on North Korea.
In recent months, his administration moved toward unilaterally tightening sanctions, targeting Chinese companies and banks the U.S. says are funneling cash into Pyongyang’s weapons program.
Beijing has resisted Washington’s suggestions that it isn’t doing enough to pressure Pyongyang, saying the U.S. must directly engage North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions.