PYONGYANG, North Korea – The U.S. airstrikes this week were aimed at a Syrian air base, but almost certainly got the attention of another adversary — North Korea.
Heading into the first talks between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, North Korea was the front-and-center security issue on the table. But Trump's decision to launch the airstrikes changed that dynamic quite abruptly — and for Pyongyang, more than talk of sanctions or deeper isolation, the missiles may well have been the message.
Trump talked up the meeting with lots of tough rhetoric about how he was going to get China to fully exert its influence over North Korea or, if he needed to, go it alone, saying Washington could "totally" resolve the issue without China's help. Pyongyang appeared to up the ante just before the meeting began by test-launching a ballistic missile.
With all eyes on the Syria airstrikes, however, the expected showdown over North Korea policy ended with no significant breakthroughs to announce.
The two leaders instead broadly vowed to work more closely to get the North to abandon its nuclear weapons, a vow that Pyongyang has heard many times before.
Such closer cooperation could include tighter enforcement of international trade sanctions — almost all of North Korea's trade passes through China — along with a crackdown on the North's ability to use the international financial system and heavy punishments or exclusion from the financial world for those who deal with the North.
Beijing, though deeply concerned by its neighbor's nuclear weapons program, has always advocated an approach that focuses more on talks and engagement than sanctions and isolation. Having gotten through the talks without making any major, specific commitments, the Chinese president would seem to have won some ground — or at least some wiggle room — in the Trump talks.
For Pyongyang, meanwhile, the news of Trump's military action against Syria probably spoke louder than words.
Like most of the world, Pyongyang is still trying to figure out just what kind of a leader Trump will be. The missile barrage enhances Trump's image as a leader willing to use U.S. military power quickly and in a precision-strike manner — which is exactly the scenario that concerns North Korea most.
The airstrikes, announced shortly after Trump and Xi wrapped up dinner Thursday night, were retaliation against Syrian President Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack against civilians caught up in his country's long civil war.
North Korea has long claimed that the United States is preparing to conduct similar precision strikes against its territory or even launch an all-out invasion.
In fact, the North justifies its nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent to the U.S. military threat and has over the past weeks warned that the biggest-ever joint U.S.-South Korean war games, which are held annually and are now underway, have raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war. The peninsula remains technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean conflict was concluded with an armistice, not a formal peace treaty.
Washington denies it has any intention of invading the North.
Doing so — even with a one-off sort of airstrike — would be a far more risky move. Unlike Syria, North Korea has a means of striking back. Along with its rapidly advancing nuclear and long-range missile capabilities, it has its artillery and short-range missiles trained on Seoul, the capital of U.S. ally South Korea and a city of more than 10 million people.
Nevertheless, the strikes against Assad's government in Syria — which Pyongyang considers an ally — are likely to have added weight in the North's eyes to Trump's recent threat to act unilaterally against North Korea's weapons program.
If it was looking for moral support from Beijing, which is also inclined to support Assad and more diplomacy rather than military actions, it didn't get any. China's response to the airstrikes was muted.