Mixed sig­nals on North Korea

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Pres­i­dent Trump had the op­por­tu­nity Thurs­day to clar­ify his star­tling state­ment ear­lier in the week that North Korea will face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it con­tin­ues to threaten the United States. But in­stead of re­solv­ing the con­fu­sion over his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ten­tions, the pres­i­dent ex­ac­er­bated it. That’s pre­cisely the op­po­site of what’s needed at this tense time.

Trump’s apoc­a­lyp­tic lan­guage in re­marks on Tues­day seemed to catch even his clos­est ad­vi­sors by sur­prise, as did his sug­ges­tion that the U.S. take mil­i­tary ac­tion in re­sponse to mere threats by North Korea as op­posed to ag­gres­sive ac­tions. One in­ter­pre­ta­tion was that, like his cam­paign or­a­tory, it was meant to be taken “se­ri­ously, not lit­er­ally.” Af­ter all, North Korea later threat­ened the U.S. is­land ter­ri­tory of Guam, and Trump didn’t re­spond with a mil­i­tary strike.

As the week went on, key ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials fol­lowed with con­tra­dic­tory sig­nals. On Wed­nes­day, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son called for calm and dis­missed the idea of an “im­mi­nent threat” from North Korea. Yet on the same day, De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis warned the North in Trum­p­like tones to “cease any con­sid­er­a­tion of ac­tions that would lead to the end of its regime and de­struc­tion of its peo­ple.” (On Thurs­day, Mat­tis said even though he was re­spon­si­ble for giv­ing Trump mil­i­tary op­tions, the ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted to use diplo­macy.)

Speaking to re­porters Thurs­day, Trump in­sisted that “there are no mixed mes­sages” — and then he mixed the mes­sage some more. Far from dis­tanc­ing him­self from his threat to visit “fire and fury” on North Korea, he mused that maybe the warn­ing “wasn’t tough enough.”

At times he seemed to sug­gest that North Korea would ex­pose it­self to ret­ri­bu­tion only by acts of ag­gres­sion; but at other times he in­di­cated that threats might be enough of a trig­ger. For ex­am­ple, Trump of­fered this warn­ing: “If North Korea does any­thing in terms of even think­ing about at­tack[ing] any­body that we love or we rep­re­sent or our al­lies or us, they can be very, very ner­vous … be­cause things will hap­pen to them like they never thought pos­si­ble.” That lan­guage in­evitably will in­spire spec­u­la­tion that Trump is con­sid­er­ing a pre­emp­tive strike to elim­i­nate North Korea’s nu­clear weapons.

To be fair, Trump also men­tioned that he re­mained open to ne­go­ti­a­tions with North Korea, even as he noted that talks had failed to pre­vent it from de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons. His dom­i­nant theme, how­ever, was the dev­as­ta­tion that would be vis­ited on North Korea for bad be­hav­ior. Vague­ness about what con­sti­tutes such con­duct, cou­pled with in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric, runs the risk of in­creas­ing tensions and mak­ing a dev­as­tat­ing mis­cal­cu­la­tion more likely. The ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to clar­ify its po­si­tion as well its mes­sag­ing, and do it now.

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