Cloud cover prevented President Donald Trump from traveling to the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. The fog wasn’t just meteorological, but rhetorical as well, because inconsistent statements have characterized the president’s rhetoric on the North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferation crisis.
While lack of clarity is never good in foreign policy, Trump’s more recent pronouncements have at least focused more on diplomacy as he has encouragingly veered from his reckless bellicosity to more reassuring language.
That’s welcome because solving the crisis through military means — even if neither side used nuclear weapons — could cost many lives on both sides of the border, including American citizens in Seoul as well as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines pledged to protect America’s longtime southern ally. “Fire and fury” threats directed at North Korean civilians and “Little Rocket Man” as well as other irresponsible blurts designed to intimidate might only exacerbate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s paranoid perception of U.S. intent.
Trump’s more reassuring rhetoric is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. No one doubts that the U.S. has the military means to win a war. But military strength is designed to allow diplomacy to win the peace.
“Ultimately it will all work out,” Trump said before a briefing with U.S. and South Korean commanders. “Because it always works out — has to work out.” The optimism stands in sharp contrast to his earlier comments that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s incremental outreach was a “waste of time.”
Trump also spoke with needed clarity when he said, “To those nations that choose to ignore this threat — or, worse still, to enable it — the weight of this crisis is on your conscience.”
Trump should have directly mentioned China, North Korea’s amoral economic and political enabler. But if he did so during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it was in private. That would be surprising given the president’s solicitous public comments on the U.S.-China trade imbalance after making the issue a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Xi made no major concessions on trade and did not publicly indicate that Beijing would ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang, either. But Trump must press on with Xi and other regional leaders to further isolate the Communist dynasty that threatens regional and indeed global order.
There’s risk that Trump’s words can be misinterpreted. “Conciliatory is one word that comes to mind; another word would be contradictory,” said Jonathan Pollack, senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. “What’s difficult to know is where the center of gravity lies within the administration.”
If it’s difficult for Pollack, a veteran observer of North Korea, to determine, it’s likely also difficult for U.S. adversaries and allies to discern.