Americans are so fixated on the issues of health care and Russia that tightening sanctions on North Korea almost escapes notice. One minute the networks are vying with one another on what passes as “analysis” on President Trump’s efforts to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare, and the next they’re covering the latest “revelation” of whatever Trump and his family members and friends might have told the Russians.

As for expanding sanctions on North Korea, they come almost as an afterthought in a bill that the lower house of Congress passed overwhelmingly for one reason that has nothing to do with the north. The bill, while increasing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, would keep Trump from reducing them on Russia. The fear is he might want to soften anti-Russian sanctions in the interests of U.S.-Russian amity. It will be interesting to see if the Senate agrees and the bill becomes law.

So how does North Korea get into the act? The prevailing view here is that North Korea has many ways to evade sanctions, and the bill would plug some of the holes by banning import of products made by North Korean “slave labor” while blockading ships from countries doing business with the North. The language is so vague, however, that these reinforced sanctions may represent very little change from existing sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Nor is anyone saying what exactly the United States will do if North Korea, in defiance of all sanctions and threats, goes on testing long-range missiles capable of sending nuclear warheads to Alaska or even the U.S. west coast.

The betting remains that Trump is not about to open Korean War II, but reports from China are alarming.

The Chinese may not like the North Koreans, and vice versa, but they do place top priority on a “stable” North Korea as a buffer between China and U.S. forces in South Korea.

North Korea contributes to the unease with rhetoric that matches live-fire tests.

It is hoped all this rhetoric is meaningless. It would not be nice for Washington’s quarreling factions suddenly to discover they had a war on their hands while they were busy reading the latest Trump tweet about the nasty media or his political foes.

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Donald Kirk has been a columnist for Korea Times, South China Morning Post many other newspaper and magazines. He wrote this for The opinions are the writer's.