Less than a month ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We’ve said from the diplomatic side, we’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition.” He continued: “Let’s just meet, and we can talk about the weather if you want. Talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table, if that’s what you are excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face, and then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards.” The very next day, the White House seemed to walk that back.
As we’ve noted, the aversion to talks coming from the White House is not a sentiment shared by our Asian allies, especially South Korea. Pyongyang has now cleverly sought to exploit that divide. “South Korea on Tuesday offered talks with North Korea next week, amid a tense standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day speech that he was ‘open to dialogue’ with Seoul,” Reuters reported. “Kim also said he was open to the possibility of North Korean athletes taking part in Winter Olympics South Korea hosts next month.”
That prompted the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, to declare on Tuesday: “We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea. We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a Band-Aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture.” She added: “We think that we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now. So North Korea can talk with anyone they want but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have.” In other words, North Korea has to capitulate before we talk to its representatives.
So which is it — we talk with no preconditions, or we demand complete surrender before we talk? Heather Nauert said at Tuesday’s daily press briefing, “Our policy hasn’t changed. We are working toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Our policy remains the same. If the Republic of Korea and if the DPRK want to have a conversation, that’s fine, but we aren’t going to necessarily believe that Kim Jong Un is sincere and is credible in his talks.” But with this president, “administration policy” is in the eye of the beholder. Haley, Tillerson and President Trump often have contradictory takes.
Nauert on Tuesday correctly observed that North Korea was “trying to drive a wedge of some sort” between South Korea and the United States. Critics of the administration agree on that point.
Then to top off all that, in his best imitation of a dangerous lunatic, Trump tweeted Tuesday night, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” No wonder South Korea is scrambling to conduct talks of its own.
Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now with the Center for American Progress (CAP), observes: “The United States is a diplomatic mess. The UN ambassador, the secretary of state, and president are all pursuing different foreign policies. And Kim Jong un is trying to take advantage by reaching out to Seoul — he wants to drive a wedge between South Korea and its incoherent American ally.” He adds: “It’s working. The inability to speak with one voice is one of the most dangerous dynamics with North Korea right now.”
Former ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman tells me that it is “hard to actually know what our policy actually is given all the to-ing and fro-ing.” He notes that “in the past it was policy that the basis of the talks should be to pursue the total and complete de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula — something to which North Korea has signed up in the past.” And if it’s hard for U.S. observers to figure out what the Trump team is doing, you can imagine the confusion in the region.
“The issue isn’t just Trump’s erratic nature and his Tweet from the hip approach to national security. It’s also that key members of his own team far too often don’t appear to be on the same page with him and each other,” says CAP’s Brian Katulis. “Every administration faces major challenges in policy coordination on national security, but hardly a week has gone by in the first year of the Trump administration when there wasn’t multiple voices or policy moves that seemed to contradict each other.” He explains: “The consequence is that countries around the world — allies and enemies alike — will conclude that the United States is not as reliable and relevant as it used to be on the key global security issues. On North Korea, the stakes are enormous — and the United States is weaker when the administration fails to speak and act in one voice.”
That weakness, as we see, causes nervous allies to fend for themselves and dogged opponents to separate us from allies and sow doubt about the United States’ reliability. Unless and until we have a rational commander in chief willing to study up on issues, we can expect this unfortunate state of affairs to worsen as more and more foreign leaders figure out that Trump is ”terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous,” as various diplomats told Susan Glasser. (Her summary of foreign diplomats’ thinking on U.S. foreign policy in general should be alarming: “The U.S. president was ignorant, at times massively so, about the rudiments of the international system and America’s place in it, and in general about other countries. He seemed to respond well to flattery and the lavish laying out of red carpets; he was averse to conflict in person but more or less immovable from strongly held preconceptions. And given the chance, he would respond well to anything that seemed to offer him the opportunity to flout or overturn the policies endorsed by his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.”) Given his nuclear button tweet Tuesday night, one can hardly quibble with these characterizations.
In other words, in the midst of a combustible nuclear standoff, our side will have to depend on a commander in chief who is erratic, ignorant, bellicose and illogical. No better reason exists for finding a way to chase him out of the presidency as soon as possible, and hopefully before 2020.