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International Relations

North Korean audience watches Trump's actions in Syria

U.S. president tells Russia to 'get ready' for missiles

U.S. President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership accompanied by his new National Security Adviser John Bolton, right, at the White House on April 9.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- U.S. President Donald Trump told Russia to "get ready" for missiles aimed toward Syria, but his warning in a tweet on Wednesday morning will draw attention as far away as North Korea.

Though Trump's missive comes in response to an apparent chemical weapons attack in a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, such an airstrike carries global implications, experts said.

"North Korea will be watching very carefully how the Trump administration handles itself in the Middle East," said Evans Revere, a former U.S. State Department official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It will look at how determined Washington is in using its arsenal."

The Trump tweet read: "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'"

The American leader also blasted Moscow's alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the U.S. and other Western countries think is responsible for the chemical attack. "You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"

"Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War," Trump added in a separate tweet.

The U.S. announced Monday that a "major decision" on Syria would come within the following 24 to 48 hours. The Wednesday tweet triggered a surge in oil prices with West Texas Intermediate crude hitting $67.45 a barrel, the highest since December 2014.

"Anybody who has dealt with Pyongyang understands what it means. Kim has no intention of giving up the nuclear weapons."

Evans Revere, former U.S. State Department official

Yet Revere doubted that any tough stance by the Trump administration would produce substantial gains in the summit between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, expected in May or early June.

"The specific language North Korea is using to describe denuclearization is an old phrase, and anybody who has dealt with Pyongyang understands what it means," Revere said. "Kim has no intention of giving up the nuclear weapons his regime has struggled and sacrificed so much to build.

"Kim Jong Un has conducted more nuclear tests than his father and is more determined than his father or his grandfather to make nuclear weapons a pillar of the regime's survival strategy," he added.

But Nile Gardiner, a former special adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a Heritage Foundation fellow, said an attack on Syria "will certainly serve as a warning to North Korea and focus the minds of those in Pyongyang about the president's determination to achieve denuclearization."

"It will give North Korea a clear understanding of America's willingness to stand up to regimes that use chemical, biological and nuclear weapons," Gardiner said.

"Russia would like to play a intermediary role in Korean matters. But a lot of this will depend on Russia-U.S. relations."

Anna Kireeva, associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations

Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said some experts in Washington think the threat of military strikes at the end of 2017 and early 2018 drove Kim to return to negotiations.

"The North Koreans seem to be communicating with the U.S., in preparation for the summit, through [Director] Mike Pompeo's office at the Central Intelligence Agency, knowing that he will be the next secretary of state," Collins said. "The North Koreans closely watch the personnel moves in Washington and are very good at this."

Anna Kireeva, an associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, suggested that any souring of U.S.-Russia relations over Syria could hamper Moscow's ability to act as an intermediary on North Korean issues, including as a member of the so-called six-party talks -- which also include North and South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and China.

"Russia would like to play a role here, probably as well as China, kind of an intermediary in Korean matters," she said Wednesday at a Korea Society event in New York. "But a lot of this will depend on Russia-U.S. relations."

North Korea would prefer Russia's inclusion in the talks as an intermediary due to Moscow's "more neutral" stance, Kireeva said. "From what I've seen in the last several years, North Koreans have been particularly concerned that they do not want to be subordinate to China in political and security terms," she said.

The situation in Syria and the summit with North Korea will be the first challenges for Trump's hawkish new national security adviser John Bolton, who assumed his position on Monday.

Tensions flared between Washington and Moscow during a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday after Russia vetoed a U.S. draft resolution seeking to set up an independent mechanism to identify the perpetrators of the alleged attack.

Moscow countered with its own resolution, which would create an attribution mechanism but let the Security Council approve the investigators and assess their findings before publishing their report. The Russian draft failed to garner the necessary nine affirmative votes from the 15-member council. China, which broke from its common position with Russia to abstain from the U.S. text, voted in support of the Russian proposal.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called Russia's veto record "a travesty" in her remarks to the council after the second failed vote. Russia has vetoed six resolutions related to chemical weapons use in Syria.

"History will record that on this day, Russia chose protecting a monster over the lives of the Syrian people," she said.

The pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned airlines on Tuesday to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean.

"Due to the possible launch of airstrikes into Syria with air-to-ground and cruise missiles within the next 72 hours ... due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the eastern Mediterranean," it said.

Intermittent disruptions of radio navigation equipment are possible, Eurocontrol said. Aviation regulators have increasingly monitored the skies above conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

Syria's chemical weapons program has been a source of controversy since the first alleged use of a chemical agent by the Assad regime in 2012. Though an agreement was reached in 2013 on the destruction of the government's chemical weapons stockpile, reports of such attacks have persisted.

A U.N. report published in March found evidence of the transfer of items related to ballistic missiles and chemical weapons from North Korea into Syria, part of more than 40 previously unreported shipments between 2012 and 2017. North Korea also is suspected of responsibility for a deadly chemical attack in Malaysia last year, after traces of the VX nerve agent were found on the body of Kim Jong Nam, the brother of the North Korean leader.

Nikkei Asian Review Chief Desk Editor Ken Moriyasu contributed to this report.

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