President Trump’s approach to the rapidly rising threat from North Korea has veered from empathy for the country’s bellicose leader to finger-pointing at China to quick-tempered threats of possible military action.
The administration’s goals and tactics have also shifted, from isolating North Korea to reassuring leader Kim Jong Un that the United States won’t overthrow him to threats of, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it, “annihilation.”
Before Pyongyang’s sixth and largest nuclear test Sunday, Trump had said U.S. military options were “locked and loaded” should North Korea behave rashly.
On Wednesday, Trump sounded subdued and statesmanlike.
“We’re going to see what happens,” Trump said when asked whether he is considering military action against North Korea. “We’ll see what happens. Certainly, that’s not our first choice, but we will see what happens.”
While Trump has accused his predecessors of not being tough on North Korea, the zigzagging U.S. response and the president’s willingness to talk openly about a military attack could be creating its own set of problems by raising the price of an eventual deal and probably making negotiations impossible for now, Asia security analysts said.
“Kim Jong Un is not begging for war,” said Daniel Russel, who was the State Department’s top diplomat for Asia until earlier this year. “What he wants is not conflict but some kind of major concession” from the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan.
Kim, in contrast to Trump, has been relentlessly consistent.
During Trump’s nearly eight months in office, North Korea’s leader has, as promised, accelerated development of a more powerful nuclear weapon and long-range missiles that could deliver a warhead to U.S. shores. The goal, Asia security specialists said, is to cut off U.S. military options and force the United States and the rest of the world to make concessions.
“Kim Jong Un has a very scrutable game plan,” said Russel, now a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Leverage his nuclear threat and monetize it.”
That strategy predates Trump, and U.S. officials have complained about a shakedown for years.
But Trump’s response has been far different from recent administrations’ and, at times, has seemed more off the cuff than the result of deliberative planning.
He recently mused about cutting off all trade with nations that do business with North Korea, a practical impossibility and a proposal at odds with the U.S. strategy of engaging China and other nations in international economic sanctions against North Korea.
Trump spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday and told reporters that the 45-minute conversation about North Korea was productive.
“President Xi would like to do something. We’ll see whether or not he can do it,” Trump said. “But we will not be putting up with what’s happening in North Korea. I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100 percent. He doesn’t want to see what’s happening there, either.”
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that if the United Nations does not put additional sanctions on North Korea, he has an executive order ready for Trump to sign that would impose sanctions on any country that trades with Pyongyang, Reuters reported.
The muddled U.S. message includes offers of diplomacy from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and threats of additional economic sanctions from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and of a “massive military response” from Mattis.
Haley told the U.N. Security Council at an emergency session Monday that Kim is “begging for war.”
Trump had appeared to endorse diplomatic outreach before writing it off as pointless in a Twitter message on Aug. 30.
“Talking is not the answer!” he wrote then.
Democrats have criticized Trump’s handling of the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, arguing a more measured approach is needed.
“The president of the United States needs to be on the phone conducting diplomacy, not these hot and cold tweets,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Tuesday in an interview with MSNBC. “We want to work with China, and we want to get them to put pressure on North Korea. On one hand, he tweets that his best buddy is President Xi, and the next day he tweets something very different.”
Mattis and Tillerson along with other national security officials briefed lawmakers on North Korea on Wednesday. Democrats who attended the meeting, according to CNN, said they struck a more diplomatic tone than Trump.
"I feel like we still have two different polices on North Korea: one at the Department of State and Department of Defense, and another on the President's Twitter feed," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told the network.
China is the most important partner in making any economic penalties stick. Beijing worked with the United States to approve tough new export bans on North Korea last month, a strong signal of Chinese irritation with a regime it protects but cannot fully control. Beijing has signaled opposition to new penalties, potentially including an oil embargo, that the United States is now seeking through the United Nations.
“The time has come to exhaust all diplomatic means to end this crisis, and that means quickly enacting the strongest possible measures here in the U.N. Security Council,” Haley said Monday.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized pressure and military options.
“Look, we’ve been clear about what our priorities are: that now is not the time for us to spend a lot of time focused on talking with North Korea, but putting all measures of pressure that we can,” she said. “All options are on the table, and we’re going to continue to keep them on the table until we get the results that we’re looking for.”
It is not clear where Tillerson’s diplomatic overture stands. A week before North Korea’s latest nuclear test, of a hydrogen bomb, Tillerson told “Fox News Sunday” that the United States hoped Kim would take the “different path” that negotiations could offer.
“We’re going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign as I have described it, working with allies, working with China as well to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table,” Tillerson said in the Aug. 27 interview.
He has gone so far as to directly address North Korea, and offer assurances that the United States does not plan to invade.
“We are not your enemy,” he said on Aug. 1.
Since then, North Korea has twice test-fired missiles and conducted its most powerful nuclear test yet. And at least until Wednesday, Trump had increasingly emphasized military responses.
He referred only to military advisers and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general, when tweeting about a White House emergency session on North Korea on Sunday.
“I will be meeting General Kelly, General Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss North Korea,” Trump wrote.
Mattis later told reporters the session was a “small-group national security meeting” with Trump and Vice President Pence.
Any threat to the United States or its allies “will be met with a massive military response — a response both effective and overwhelming,” Mattis said Sunday.
He advised Kim to heed international warnings to stand down, but he did not call for talks or repeat earlier warnings that he sees no military solution to the North Korean problem.
“We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country — namely, North Korea,” Mattis said. “But, as I said, we have many options to do so.”