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North Korea nuclear crisis

Steve Bannon: Forget talk of military solutions to North Korea threat - US must first engage China to rein in Pyongyang

Donald Trump’s former chief strategist tells the Post that the US needs to push ‘one-on-one’ engagement with Beijing to defuse the nuclear crisis

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2017, 11:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 September, 2017, 11:33pm

The US should sit down with China before pursuing a discussion with North Korea on how to solve the Korean peninsula’s nuclear crisis, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday.

“In the US, there has been a ratcheting up of rhetoric about military solutions,” Bannon said in an interview. “There have also been people like the Secretary of State and others that are pushing towards potential discussions with North Korea. But I think the first thing we need to push is actually engage China one-on-one on North Korea,” he said.

Known for his far-right nationalist views and hawkish stance on China, the former top aide to US President Donald Trump is in Hong Kong to speak at an investor conference held by CLSA, a subsidiary of China’s largest brokerage, state-backed Citic Securities.

Although Bannon departed the White House four weeks ago amid a high-profile shake-up in the West Wing and has returned to far-right website Breitbart News, he answered some interview questions as if he still is part of Trump’s Washington inner circle.

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“(While) I’m a minority in that administration, [it] looks like they’re heading towards some sort of discussion potentially with North Korea, some sort of discussion that has more parties to it than what I think is just bilateral,” he said.

“I hope in November, that’s a centrepiece of the summit that President Trump has [with Chinese President Xi Jinping],” he added.

Trump has repeatedly called on China to stop North Korea’s nuclear advancement, urging it to use its economic relationship as its neighbour’s top trading partner as leverage. However, China has been reluctant to push too hard, fearing its intervention might cause North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse and trigger a civil war that would bring US troops onto the peninsula and flood the Chinese border with refugees.

When pressed on what more the US could do to pressure China to rein in the Kim regime, Bannon said he did not think it needed to use leverage to force China’s hand.

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“I think it’s just making sure China understands what a dangerous situation it is in the northwest Pacific ... I never said to force China to do anything,” he said. “It’s to have an open dialogue and discussion with China. I don’t look at it as you are going to go in with leverage.”

This statement was in stark contrast with remarks Bannon made in an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes on Sunday, stating that the US should “double down” on efforts to pressure China by utilising the “tremendous leverage” it has to “force China”.

“They [the Chinese] are saying we’re doing everything we can. It’s not good enough,” Bannon said in the CBS interview.

“I think we have tremendous leverage to force China,” he said, citing sanctions, capital markets, Chinese banks and financial institutions as examples.

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In Tuesday’s interview with the Post, Bannon said the UN Security Council’s unanimous approval of new sanctions on Monday that will restrict North Korea’s oil imports and ban its textile exports was “great”, although the measures were far from the ban on all North Korean oil imports and a freeze on the international assets of the government and Kim that the Trump administration had initially sought.

Only time will tell if the sanctions will be enough, Bannon said.

When asked if the US should accept North Korea as a nuclear power, Bannon wouldn’t venture an opinion, saying that was for the leaders of the US and China to figure out.

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Throughout the interview, Bannon’s tone was markedly more diplomatic, milder and positive on China than during his tenure as Trump’s right-hand man. His comments signified a surprising departure from the hawkish comments he made back at home when he lashed out at China on a wide range of issues including trade, intellectual property, North Korea and its “ultranationalistic” younger generation.

Before kicking off what some media described his “global anti-China crusade”, Bannon compared China to 1930s Germany in an interview with The New York Times, saying the Asian giant is “on the cusp” and “could go one way or the other”.

Bannon said he remained as tough as ever in his economic views.

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“I think it is just as tough. If you look at it, I came here and said, ‘We’re gonna stop the economic war, we’re gonna start working together.’ In the US, no one has ever addressed this,” he said.

“I’ve never been an anti-China guy, that’s an interpretation of the media. I’ve said some pretty tough stuff, but I think that’s come from someone who knows China, who thinks very highly of it.”