Mixed signals on North Korea
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.