The White House has launched a review of its policy on North Korea, reflecting the growing nuclear threat from Pyongyang that Barack Obama told Donald Trump would represent his most pressing national security challenge.
Two people familiar with the review, which the White House has not disclosed, said it was designed to determine what the Trump administration could do differently to address concerns that North Korea could strike the US with a nuclear-armed missile. One person said Michael Flynn, national security adviser, ordered the review on Friday.
Mr Trump has personally had several detailed intelligence briefings in recent days, according to a third person familiar with the discussions.
The move came just as James Mattis, the US defence secretary, was preparing to travel to South Korea then Japan to discuss ways the allies can tackle the mounting nuclear threat from Pyongyang. Mr Mattis, a former four-star general nicknamed “Mad Dog”, on Thursday began his three-day Asian visit, which is aimed at reassuring Seoul and Tokyo that Mr Trump is committed to the bedrock US alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
“It is a priority for President Trump’s administration to pay attention to the north-west Pacific, to our two strong allies,” Mr Mattis told reporters onboard his flight to Seoul, adding that the three countries were confronting the North Korean situation “together”.
The visit to reassure Japan and South Korea comes amid anxiety among US allies about their relations with Mr Trump, who has vowed to implement an “America First” policy.
In his first two weeks in office, he has sparked a dispute with Mexico, angered European allies including Britain and Germany over his “extreme vetting” immigration policy, and shouted at Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister, in their first phone call.
It is a priority for President Trump’s administration to pay attention to the north-west Pacific, to our two strong allies
According to the Washington Post, Mr Trump told the Australian leader their conversation was “the worst call by far” of four he held on Saturday, which included one with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dennis Wilder, a former White House Asia adviser, said the main reason for the Asia trip was to discuss North Korea with the allies. Before leaving office, Mr Obama told Mr Trump his immediate focus should be North Korea. Pyongyang has shot up the hotspot rankings after testing two nuclear devices and 20 ballistic missiles last year.
“The administration needs to get off to a fast start on this because the clock is ticking toward North Korea having the ability to target the US mainland with nuclear weapons,” said Mr Wilder. “The more fissile material North Korea produces and the harder the UN sanctions bite, the more tempted Kim Jong Un will be to proliferate.”
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Democratic and Republican foreign policy experts agreed on the need to review North Korea policy.
“We are going to see some intense debates as to whether there should be possible diplomacy. In the campaign, Trump himself said he wanted to talk to Kim Jong Un,” she said. “Many people will lean in the direction of continuing the sanctions. If there is going to be any kind of engagement with North Korea, will there be preconditions?”
It is unclear how Mr Kim will react as he faces an erratic US president with a tweet-from-the-hip approach. Mr Trump last month took to Twitter to insist Pyongyang’s plans to develop missiles capable of hitting the US “won’t happen”. His comment raised the spectre of pre-emptive military action, which would risk retaliatory attacks from North Korea on Seoul, imperilling the 24m people living in the area.
Mr Mattis will attempt to erase concerns in Japan and South Korea over Mr Trump. During the presidential campaign, Mr Trump floated the idea of removing troops from the two nations and suggested that Tokyo and Seoul consider developing nuclear weapons to combat the North Korean threat and ease the US burden.
Evan Medeiros, the top Asia adviser to Mr Obama now at Eurasia Group, said the Trump administration would come under pressure to explain its broader policy for Asia in the wake of the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was the economic linchpin of the Obama administration’s Asia pivot.
Bruce Klinger, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said Japanese and South Korean officials had recently been pouring into Washington to find clues about how Mr Trump would view the alliances.
Mr Mattis will hold talks with Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting president of South Korea, and the defence and foreign ministers, before leaving for Tokyo on Friday where he will meet Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. The visit comes as countries in Asia are keen to learn what the Trump administration’s policy will be on everything from the South China Sea and Taiwan to the Senkaku Islands — which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and called the Diaoyu in Chinese — in the East China Sea.
US policy in the region has been further complicated by the domestic politics in South Korea following a legislative vote in December to impeach President Park Geun-hye. Mr Hwang lacks a popular mandate and has little scope to drastically alter the country’s foreign policy trajectory.
Another issue weighing on Mr Hwang will be the US commitment to the planned deployment of an anti-missile shield in South Korea. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence platform (Thaad) was agreed last year but plans have since come under strain following strident Chinese opposition.