North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile over Japan was unprecedented, but President Trump’s response Tuesday was not — a renewal of his warning that “all options are on the table.” His tough talk may only serve to remind that the possibility of military action has not yet deterred North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The missile launch seemed designed to wreak just the right amount of havoc: enough for Kim to show that he would not be cowed but not so much as to invite the “fire and fury” that Trump warned could follow continued North Korean threats.

The lack of coherence was not lost on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). “The latest provocation from Kim Jong-un’s regime, directly threatening our treaty ally Japan, has further heightened tensions in the region and is a clear indication that the administration’s approach is not working,” Cardin said in a written statement released Tuesday. He continued, “The United States must continue to stand by our allies South Korea and Japan, and lead the international community in a constructive, multi-pronged effort that meshes both additional pressure and diplomacy to get North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs and get back to the negotiating table. As with most of President Trump’s foreign policy, there is no coherent North Korea strategy. Just empty statements and wild, counterproductive tweets.”

As if to prove Cardin correct, we witnessed a clear disconnect between the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Trump tweeted, “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” A few hours later, news outlets reported:

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Wednesday that there was still room for diplomacy in dealing with North Korea’s provocative ballistic missile launches, after President Donald Trump said negotiations were “not the answer.”
“We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said as he went into a meeting with South Korea Defense Minister Song Young-Moo.
“We continue to work together and the minister and I share responsibility to provide for the protection of our nation our populations and our interests, which is what we are here to discuss,” he added.
“We are never complacent.”

The administration will no doubt deny — how dare we! — there is any conflict. You see, what Trump meant is that only talking is unhelpful. Or something. Candidly, outside observers even before today’s crossed wires have bemoaned the administration’s lack of discipline, coordination and seriousness.

Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United State, argues that Trump is making matters worse: “The situation with North Korea, in other words, got worse just after Trump declared it was getting better. That’s not an accident. So far, the Trump administration has been unable to execute a clear strategy for dealing with Kim — which is why the messaging and actions from the White House, State Department and Pentagon have been so uncoordinated and ineffective.”

Others such as Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution make the case that concrete action has not followed rhetoric. Pollack explains that a reasonable approach “would involve isolating North Korea to an unprecedented degree, drying up its sources of foreign exchange, cutting off its trade, creating divisions within its elites, encouraging defections, applying military pressure, using cyber actions to affect its economy, painting the darkest possible picture of the regime’s future for its leadership and the elites, and undermining the regime’s confidence in its ability to survive.” Nevertheless, he contends, “The Trump administration’s recent rhetoric suggests it aspires to do this. But its approach so far suggests its aspirations greatly exceed its concrete actions.”

Others urge we start taking specific steps to squeeze Pyongyang. CNN reports:

The real issue is how continued North Korean provocations distract the US from its goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, according to Anthony Ruggiero, a former deputy director of the US Treasury Department and an expert on the use of targeted financial measures for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The US should focus on increasing sanctions and diplomacy with key allies (South Korea and Japan) to counter North Korea’s continued sanctions evasion and nuclear weapons and missile programs,” he said.

Even then, it is far from clear North Korea will give up its nuclear program.

Another approach is to stop talking and start showing muscle. USA Today reports:

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said a U.S. warship successfully shot down a medium-range ballistic missile in a test off Hawaii on Wednesday, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to press ahead with more missile tests in the Pacific.
The USS John Paul Jones detected and tracked a missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai with its onboard radar, before intercepting it with SM-6 missiles, the MDA said.

Kim likely will be unimpressed. Even skeptics of more assertive action (including ex-negotiator Christopher Hill) have acknowledged that it may be necessary at some point to shoot down a missile test, a risky proposition that if unsuccessful will vastly embolden North Korea.

It has become a cliche to say there are no good solutions to North Korea. That does not mean however there aren’t better and worse choices. Escalating rhetoric and impulsive tweets from the president backed up by no visible action surely is the worst of all. Perhaps the administration should start by having a single person — preferably not Trump — speak on the issue.