×

US presses China to rein in 'unruly client' North Korea

The deployment of a U.S. navy strike group near the Korean peninsula may prelude Syria-style action, provoking Pyongyang and escalating regional tensions, foreign policy experts told CNBC.

A U.S. Navy strike group will be moving toward the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula as a show of force, a U.S. official told Reuters on Saturday, as concerns grow about North Korea's advancing weapons program.

Such U.S. power projection is ostensibly aimed at decelerating North Korea's nuclear program either independently or by leaning on Beijing to contain its neighbors' nuclear ambitions, building on what appeared to be cordial talks between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last week.

People watch a television news showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on April 5, 2017.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images
People watch a television news showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on April 5, 2017.

"I imagine that it is a more a show of strength to encourage North Korea to slow its missile program," said Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University's political science department. "But I doubt it will work. The North Koreans have spent enormous resources to get this far, and they have a long history of not responding to outside pressure."

Positioning the aircraft carrier-led strike group in close proximity to North Korea days before the politically charged birthday of founding leader Kim Il-sung may be "part of an exercise to put pressure on China to help rein in its unruly client," said Gabriel Stein, managing director for developed markets research at 4CAST-RGE.

Trump has said "either China would help the U.S. with North Korea or the U.S. would act alone," Stein said. "The topic will have been discussed at President Xi's visit to Mar-a-Lago."

Separate from the longer term objectives of deescalating North Korea's nuclear program, the strike group's deployment at such a sensitive time risks unintended consequences if the strategic gamble does not go to script.

"It would be unwise to rule out totally an early U.S. strike on North Korea, even discounting last week's on the Assad regime, but I think that is a low probability," said Alavan Business Advisory's Alastair Newton.

"This being said, the deployment of the carrier group does certainly raise tensions and it is at least equally the case that one could not rule out some sort of gesture (as opposed to boiler plate statement) of defiance from Pyongyang," Newton, a former British diplomat, said. "However, Kim Jong-Un is not, in my view, irrational to the extent that he will do something which the U.S. really cannot ignore militarily."