US President Donald Trump has said a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as Washington tests China’s willingness to address the threat despite warnings from Beijing that the situation on the Korean peninsula could slip out of control.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters at the Oval Office on Thursday.
“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said, describing North Korea as his biggest global challenge.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Friday to push for a tougher response to North Korea and pile pressure on China to rein in its ally.
The United States has called for stronger UN sanctions on North Korea, but it wants China to take the lead in diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
“We are going to be discussing what steps may be necessary to increase pressure on Pyongyang to have them reconsider their current posture,” Tillerson said in an interview with Fox News on the eve of the meeting.
Turning to China, Tillerson said: “We are going to test their willingness to help us address the serious threat.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who will attend the Security Council meeting, said there was a danger that the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.
Wang made the comments in a meeting at the UN with a Russian diplomat on Thursday.
No resolutions will be adopted at Friday’s meeting, but it will allow Washington and its allies to put the onus on China to use its leverage to rein in Pyongyang.
North Korea is seeking to develop a long-range missile capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead, and has so far staged five atomic tests, two of them last year.
China, Pyongyang’s number one trade partner, has repeatedly called for a return to talks on denuclearization but has been reluctant to use economic pressure that could destabilize North Korea.
The Security Council has imposed six sets of sanctions on North Korea — two adopted last year — to significantly ramp up pressure and deny Kim Jong-Un’s regime the hard currency revenue needed for his military programs.
But UN sanctions experts have repeatedly told the council that the measures have had little impact on Pyongyang because they have been poorly implemented.