North Korean leader Kim Jong Un receives a military briefing in Pyongyang. (Korean Central Television via Associated Press)
Former deputy editorial page fditor

The Trump administration’s principal response to North Korea, intentional or not, is sowing confusion. One day the president threatens “fire and fury,” or ominously announces that an “armada” led by an aircraft carrier is headed for the Korean coast; the next, he is contradicted by a Pentagon spokesperson or a White House political adviser, who says the United States would not initiate hostilities, or that there is no military option, or that the aircraft carrier is actually headed in the opposite direction.

The United States is “seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue” with the regime of Kim Jong Un, says Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. No, “talking is not the answer,” tweets President Trump a week later. But wait: “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” says Defense Secretary Jim Mattis later that day.

Perhaps Kim and his cronies have been confounded; certainly, U.S. allies Japan and South Korea have been. But it doesn’t look like it. While the rhetoric flies in Washington, Pyongyang persistently and craftily pursues its drive to acquire nuclear-armed ICBMs while stopping just short of provocations that might demand some kind of U.S. military response.

If an actual U.S. policy lurks beneath all that noise, it’s a lot like that pursued by the Obama administration. Ramp up pressure on the regime, through sanctions and by pressuring China; try to disrupt nuclear and missile activities with covert actions. Meanwhile, wait for a diplomatic opening. It’s the obvious game plan and probably better than nothing.

Yet, as the experts keep pointing out, it has almost no chance of working. The North Korean regime has shown that it can endure almost any sanctions. In the 1990s, it willingly allowed millions of its own people to starve to death. As for negotiations, Kim’s father twice agreed to the dismantlement of his nuclear program, and each time was caught cheating. His son has shown no interest in talks — he won’t even set foot in China, his biggest patron. Even if negotiations took place, the current regime has made clear that “it will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table,” as one envoy recently put it.

The deal that some doves favor is a freeze on the current North Korean nuclear stockpile and missiles in exchange for a suspension of U.S. military exercises in South Korea. That would introduce a lethal crack in the U.S. alliance with Seoul, and in the U.S. standing in Asia generally — which is why China and Russia love the idea.

All of which raises the question of why the only thing Trump, his Cabinet and his staff appear to agree on when it comes to North Korea is this: The United States will offer no challenge to the legitimacy of a regime that holds hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in slave labor camps; imprisons and tortures children; exports chemical agents to Syria; and assassinates its opponents in other countries using those banned weapons.

“The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,” wrote Tillerson and Mattis in a recent joint op-ed. But why? Regime change is the only way to definitively end the North Korean nuclear threat. As former State Department human rights chief Tom Malinowski has argued, “Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime.”

The United States can’t force a political opening in Pyongyang; probably even China can’t. But it can foster conditions for one, just as it did in other seemingly impenetrable places, such as the former Soviet bloc. The same tactics are available: campaigning for the human rights of North Koreans, drawing maximum attention to the regime’s crimes and opening channels of information for ordinary people in North Korea.

During the 1980s the U.S. government supported groups that distributed videotapes and underground newspapers in communist countries, in addition to broadcasting news and information. The Obama administration did the same in North Korea, but on a tiny scale: The State Department set aside just $3 million for it last year, according to Malinowski.

Trump’s budget request did not include any funding at all, and Tillerson just went so far as to eliminate the State Department’s special envoy for North Korean human rights as a separate position. He and Trump appear to be betting that offering endorsement to one of the world’s most vile regimes will prompt it to stop threatening the United States with nuclear attack. In so doing, they are giving up what is probably their most potent leverage.

The truth is that the internal crimes of the regime and the external threat it poses are inextricable — something that could be overlooked only by an administration dedicated to obtuseness on human rights.

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