WASHINGTON DC — Three months ago, Donald Trump told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson he was “wasting his time” by suggesting the US was willing to talk to North Korea.
Now, after months of apocalyptic rhetoric and mockery of “Little Rocket Man,” Kim Jong-Un, the President is offering to open dialogue when it’s “appropriate,” and even says he’s willing to talk to the North Korean leader himself.
Trump’s repositioning represents just the latest twist in US rhetoric and behavior over the dangerous nuclear showdown that’s created confusion as to exactly where the administration stands on the first major foreign policy crisis of Trump’s term.
Hints that Trump is modifying the US approach coincide with a tentative thaw between North and South Korea, ahead of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, next month — an unexpected development that might hold clues as to why America’s tone, if not the substance of its hardline policy towards the isolated state, may be easing.
“It is extremely confusing,” said Harry Kazianis, director for defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. “Are we going on a path to talks or are we going on a path to war?”
It’s not just the US position that appears to be foggy. Kim’s motivation is also in question. One the one hand, as international sanctions bite and the threat of war with the US escalates, it could be that he is genuinely seeking to ease tensions and pressure on his regime. It seems more likely however, that the North Korean leader is either seeking to play off Washington against Seoul, or to buy time for his engineers to perfect the heat shield on the intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon to US shores and complete his arsenal.
In Washington, Trump administration officials insist that there is no change in policy.
“We’ve always supported having talks with North Korea as long as they’re credible and serious,” an administration official said. “We don’t want to talk for the sake of talking, we don’t want to negotiate our way back to the bargaining table.”
The key isn’t just that North Korea stops its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, said the official, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive issues. “They have to tell us as much. They can’t have us guessing. ‘Are they not testing because they don’t have money, or the tires on their launchers have worn through? Or are they not testing because they’re ready to have discussions with us?’ It has to be clear.”
And yet signals from the administration have been anything but clear.
Just last week Trump was taunting Kim about the respective size of their nuclear buttons. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration is quietly debating whether a limited “bloody nose” military strike was possible against a North Korea without provoking Kim Jong-Un to launch a horrific all-out war in response.
Then on Saturday at Camp David, the President said he would “absolutely” be willing to talk to Kim by phone. On Wednesday, after Trump chatted to South Korean President Moon Jae-In, the White House released a statement saying that Washington was ready to talk to Pyongyang at the appropriate time and under the right circumstances.
A looming dilemma
The presidential Blue House in Seoul said in its account of the call that Trump had given an undertaking not to take military action against North Korea while talks between the two sides were taking place. The senior US official did not confirm that statement but noted that it certainly played into the South’s political goals.
It was not immediately clear whether the White House was sticking by its previous demand that North Korea revokes its nuclear program before a dialogue can begin — a step many analysts believe that Kim will never take since he sees his bombs as the key to preserving his regime.
The current uncertainty comes at a time when senior officials admit time is running out until Trump is faced with a dilemma over whether to try to destroy the North Korean threat to the US mainland, or to live with it.
There are various explanations for the conflicting signals.
Clearly, the talks between the North and South this week, and the North’s decision to send a delegation to the Olympics, have transformed the atmospherics around a standoff that had appeared to be moving at a quickening pace towards war.
The talks box Trump in because if he keeps up his bombastic rhetoric he would risk alienating a key ally in Moon. Soaring tensions could meanwhile disrupt the Games, which represent the South’s most prominent moment on the global stage since Seoul staged the Summer Olympics in 1988. Any threat to the snow and ice spectacular could also endanger a huge US delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence.
Attacks by Trump on Kim could also play into the North Korean dictator’s hands, since many experts see his current gambit as an effort to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
As Trump appears to soften his line toward North Korea, the White House is arguing that the talks between the North and South are a direct result of the President’s saber rattling.
In the readout of the Moon call, the administration said that the South Korean leader “thanked President Trump for his influential leadership in making the talks possible.”
The administration official argued that Trump’s tweets may not be diplomatic, but they directly communicate the level of frustration within the government about North Korea’s activities. Secretary of State Rex “Tillerson has said the era of strategic patience is over and the President is epitomizing that with his tweets,” the official said.
Trump himself took credit for the renewed contacts between the ROK and North Korea at Camp David. “If I weren’t involved, they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics right now,” he said. “They’d be doing no talking or it would be much more serious.” he said.
There are many alternative explanations for why the talks are taking place. They include Kim’s desire to weaken the Seoul-Washington axis, concern in the South about escalating tensions, and the incentive North Korea’s sees in the Olympics, which will allow it a brief road out of isolation and a propaganda win as its athletes are embraced on the world stage.
It is not clear that Trump’s rhetoric is near the top of that list. But it is indisputable that his strategy of ratcheting up pressure on other world powers like Russia and China has delivered the most punitive sanctions ever enforced on North Korea. The administration may be justified in claiming that it’s efforts are beginning to yield results.
Yet most observers still believe that even the toughest sanctions will not force Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. And Trump still seems committed to unpredictability, meaning that the Olympics may represent a pause rather than fundamental easing of the crisis.
Speaking of Kim, at Camp David, Trump said: “he knows I’m not messing around. I’m not messing around — not even a little bit, not even 1%. He understands that. At the same time …. if something can happen and something can come out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity. “