The Trump Administration's Evolving Rhetoric on North Korea

President Donald Tr, ... ] President Donald Tr, ... ] Alex Brandon/AP

The White House’s response Tuesday to North Korea’s latest missile test was, in a way, measured.

“The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior,” President Trump said in a statement. “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world.  All options are on the table.”

That last line—“All options are on the table”—appears ominous with its implied threat of military force, but it actually represents a reiteration of longstanding U.S. policy. For Trump, in fact, it’s a more subdued tone on the crisis in East Asia, and it came via a White House statement rather than the medium Trump often uses for foreign-policy pronouncements:  Twitter.

Trump’s missives about North Korea can be classified into two broad categories: threats against the North for its actions and frustration at what he perceives to be China’s failure to pressure Pyongyang to change its behavior. Some of these are made on Twitter; others in public appearances. He has also specifically discussed Kim Jong Un, referring to the North Korean leader at various points in time as a “wack job” and a “smart cookie” whom he’d be honored to meet.

Trump’s most recent threats against North Korea came this month after the UN Security Council unanimously voted to tighten international sanctions against Pyongyang. Shortly after that development, news reports said North Korea had succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that could be fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. Trump then said “any more threats” by North Korea would be met with “fire and fury,” words he later said weren’t “tough enough,” prompting fears of a military response. He also tweeted the U.S. nuclear arsenal “is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” adding he hoped the U.S. would never have to use it. North Korea’s response: a detailed plan to fire an intermediate-range ballistic missile at Guam, the U.S. territory in the Pacific that is home to military bases. When the North did not follow through on that plan, Trump tweeted: “Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision. The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”

Trump was noncommittal Tuesday when asked what he was going to do about the latest North Korean test:  “We'll see. We’ll see,” was all he said before traveling to Texas to inspect the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he spoke to Trump for 40 minutes on the issue, saying the two countries were in “total agreement” that the UN Security Council must increase pressure on North Korea. For her part, Trump’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley declared that “something serious has to happen” following the latest missile test, but did not elaborate.

“President Trump and Prime Minister Abe committed to increasing pressure on North Korea, and doing their utmost to convince the international community to do the same,” the White House said in a readout of the call between Trump and Abe, suggesting the U.S. was planning coordinated diplomatic action. But any such action against Pyongyang must include China, a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council, which is also North Korea’s main benefactor. Trump has during his presidency said Beijing is doing “nothing” on North Korea, cited increased trade between North Korea and China, and said China’s attempt to persuade Kim to change his behavior “has not worked out.” (China says its influence over Kim is limited, and points to reduced trade between the two countries.)

Nor is Trump the only person in his administration whose rhetoric on North Korea has fluctuated. On July 5, Haley urged Russia and China to vote for tougher sanctions on North Korea, warning: “If you choose not to, we will go our own path.” On July 30, she said there was no point to an emergency Security Council session “if it produces nothing of consequence.” (The U.S. ultimately succeeded in persuading China and Russia to sign on to the sanctions—though it’s unclear what impact those sanctions will actually have on Pyongyang, which has found multiple ways to evade sanctions in the past, as I’ve reported here.) Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, had declared the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea over, though the Trump administration’s stated policy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ resembles the Obama-era approach. Tillerson, who has spent much of the past month dialing down Trump’s North Korea-related rhetoric, has also said the U.S. is willing to talk to North Korea and is not interested in regime change. On the other hand, in April when Pyongyang tested a medium-range ballistic missile, he said: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

By Tuesday, that rhetoric, too, had shifted. In the morning, Tillerson said: “We’ll have more to say about it later.”

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