After his curt dismissal over Twitter of talks with North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump has left many wondering — and some fearing — what his next move against the nuclear-armed nation will be.
On Sunday, Trump called negotiations with Pyongyang a waste of time a day after his own secretary of state acknowledged that the United States is maintaining direct channels of communications with North Korea — even as tensions surge over the isolated nation’s nuclear and missile programs.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter, using his sarcastic nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
The mercurial U.S. leader, who Kim called a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” later railed against past administrations’ policies toward North Korea.
“Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?” Trump tweeted. “Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”
Kim, who came to power in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, is the grandson of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. The prior administrations Trump mentioned have all held some form of talks with the recalcitrant regime.
On Saturday, Tillerson acknowledged for the first time that the Trump White House was probing North Korea’s willingness to talk and called for a calming of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“We have lines of communication to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” Tillerson said during a visit to China. “We have a couple … three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them, we do talk to them.”
But, he added, “the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down,” Tillerson said. “They’re a little overheated right now.”
He did not discuss Trump’s own heated rhetoric.
The United States and North Korea have long-standing channels, including the two nations’ U.N. missions, regular exchanges between senior diplomats and unofficial “Track 2” discussions between officials from the North and former U.S. officials.
Trump has variously threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy” the country of 25 million people if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, including Japan. He has repeatedly said that all options — including military action — remain on the table for reining in the North’s nuclear weapons ambitions. In another tweet late last month, Trump also appeared to advocate regime change, saying that Kim and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, “won’t be around much longer.”
While some observers suggested Trump and Tillerson could be taking a “good-cop, bad-cop” strategy with Kim, others warned that such an approach could be misread by the North.
“The president’s threatening speeches and reckless tweets are sharply undercutting efforts by members of his own administration to pursue diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, who led the Track 2 unofficial dialogue between the United States and North Korea this year. “There’s a dangerous lack of clarity to them.”
DiMaggio, who is also a senior fellow at the think tank New America, said Trump’s words appeared “to negate the possibility of diplomacy, reinforcing Kim Jong Un’s belief that having the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons is the only way to fend off an attack on his regime.”
The country conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test — purportedly of a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb — on Sept. 3, and has launched dozens of missiles this year as it moves closer to mastering the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
In July, it conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the United States, and on Sept. 15 it lobbed an intermediate-range missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean for the second time in less than three weeks.
Pyongyang has maintained that its nuclear and missile programs are crucial to the Kim regime’s survival and has ruled out denuclearization — a key condition for the U.S. in any talks with the North — calling its atomic arsenal a “war deterrent.”
Amid this fraught environment, fears of unintended escalation on the Korean Peninsula have surged to highs not seen in decades.
In response to Trump’s rhetoric, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri, speaking on the sidelines of last month’s U.N. General Assembly, hinted at the possibility of ramped-up actions by Pyongyang, including detonating a nuclear device over the Pacific Ocean or shooting down U.S. bombers that fly near its disputed border.
But Trump’s words, often at odds with other key figures in his administration, create a dangerous sense of confusion among the North Koreans, DiMaggio said.
“The North Koreans could interpret them as a signal that the president is set on a military option,” she said. “This leaves too much room for miscalculation, especially when nuclear weapons are involved.”
But R.C. Hammond, a senior adviser to Tillerson, said there was no daylight between Trump and Tillerson’s words.
“The President just sent a clear message to NK: show up at the diplomatic table before the invitation gets cold,” Hammond tweeted. “Message to Rex? Try message to Pyongyang: Step up to the diplomatic table.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Sunday that while diplomatic channels are open “for now … they won’t be open forever.”
Still, Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, cautioned about reading too much into Tillerson’s statements on the potential for U.S.-North Korea talks.
The problem isn’t channels, it is finding a common basis for negotiations,” Glaser said. “And on that score, the U.S. and North Korea appear to still be quite far apart.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.