(ATTN: ADDS comment from Trump aides in para 5)
By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's tweet about North Korea this week shows he's recognizing the problem as a priority, but it also illustrates his lack of understanding of how serious the situation is and how little the U.S. can do about it, experts said Tuesday.
Trump tweeted Monday that North Korea's development of "a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. ... won't happen!" a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said his country has reached the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Kim's remark was a thinly veiled threat that Pyongyang is close to developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the continental U.S., after five underground nuclear blasts and a series of ballistic missile or rocket launches over the past decade.
It was unclear what Trump's message means exactly, whether it represents his assessment of the North's weapons capabilities based on intelligence, or if it means he's going to do something to prevent the communist nation from acquiring those capabilities.
But Trump's incoming White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said Monday that the tweet means that under Trump's watch, he's going to "make sure that that doesn't happen."
In a separate tweet, Trump also criticized China for not helping rein in the North while taking "out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade," the latest in a series of remarks underscoring negative views Trump has of Beijing.
"Trump will soon learn that he can't just tweet away North Korea's ICBM and nuclear programs," said Robert Manning, a senior analyst at the Atlantic Council. "He is flat out wrong about North Korea not developing a nuclear weapon that can reach the U.S. The only question is when. But it is likely to acquire that capability during his first term."
Since the election, Trump has repeatedly criticized China for not helping with the North, even raising questions why the U.S. should stick to the "one-China" policy of diplomatically recognizing only Beijing, not Taiwan, when China is uncooperative over the North.
That's in line with Trump's campaign remarks that the North is China's problem to fix.
Experts, however, were skeptical about the idea of pressuring China to resolve the problem.
"He has unrealistic expectations about China's ability and/or willingness to achieve outcomes in regard to North Korea. He has equally wrong and outdated assumptions about U.S. leverage with China and will learn that through making really dumb mistakes in his first year," Manning said.
"Trump has already shown his profound ignorance by threatening to discard the One-China policy that is the foundation of US-China relations, threatening to impose 45% tariffs on Chines goods -- and then asking Beijing to solve his North Korea problem. That is complete incoherence -- and he hasn't even taken office yet," he said.
The expert noted that there is little the U.S. can do about the problem in the near term that does not risk a war, "other than strengthening deterrence, imposing tough sanctions that remove North Korea from the international financial system."
Scott Snyder, a senior expert on Korea at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Trump's tweets show he thinks North Korea is a priority issue that is closely linked to China.
"For Trump, the issue is strongly connected to relations with China. However, at present there are few, if any, formal diplomatic channels by which Trump can communicate with the Chinese leadership, and the Chinese foreign ministry appears to have rejected diplomacy by tweet," Snyder said.
"In addition, Trump appears to have rejected the idea that North Korea's development of a preemptive strike capability will happen or that it provides Pyongyang with a basis for making demands such as an end annual US-ROK military exercises," he said.
Joel Wit, a former State Department negotiator with North Korea and currently editor of the website 38 North specializing in North Korean affairs, expressed strong skepticism about Trump's idea of resolving the problem by pressuring China.
"If he pursues the avenue of trying to get China to solve this problem for the U.S., then he is going to fail just like the Obama administration," he said.
China is North Korea's last-remaining major ally and a key provider of food and fuel supplies. But it has been reluctant to use its influence over Pyongyang for fears that pushing the regime too hard could result in instability in the North and hurt Chinese national interests.
Beijing often increased pressure on the North in the past, especially when Pyongyang defied international appeals and carried out nuclear and missile tests and other provocative acts, but it never went as far as to cause real pain to the North.