The Republic of Korea – South Korea – gave us a Fourth of July present in 1976 – the Korean Bell of Friendship in Angel’s Gate Park down in San Pedro – a massive bronze bell housed in an amazing stone pavilion high above the Pacific – to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States and to symbolize bilateral friendship and shared cultural values and all that. That was nice.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea – gave us a different sort of Fourth of July present this year:
North Korea’s latest test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile marks a direct challenge to President Trump, whose tough talk has yet to yield any change in Pyongyang’s behavior as the regime continues its efforts to build a nuclear weapon capable of striking the mainland United States.
The missile – launched Tuesday in North Korea, late Monday in the United States – flew higher and remained in the air longer than previous attempts, enough to reach all of Alaska, experts said. They called it a major milestone for North Korea’s weapons program.
The test comes just before Trump will see key Asian leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week. North Korea was already expected to be a main subject for meetings on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit, but the test adds urgency to a widening U.S. campaign aimed at further isolating North Korea.
That wasn’t nice, and we did the usual:
The day after the launch, the U.S. Army and the South Korean military conducted a missile exercise in response to “North Korea’s destabilizing and unlawful actions,” U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement. It was unclear how Pyongyang might react to the exercise, which launched missiles into South Korean territorial waters along the country’s eastern coastline.
“Together with the Republic of Korea, we conducted a combined exercise to show our precision-fire capability,” said Dana White, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
This could go bad fast, but our president was on the case:
Trump responded to the North Korean missile test by applying rhetorical pressure on China, North Korea’s ally and economic lifeline, and by mocking dictator Kim Jong Un on Twitter.
“North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” Trump asked in a message very shortly after the launch.
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” Trump continued. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
That was it. That’s all there was from our president, who does what he knows works, or has worked for him in the past. He tweets. It’s awesome. The target of his mockery folds and then slinks away, in shame. That’s how he won the nomination. That’s how we won the presidency. That’s how this will work. North Korea, embarrassed by his mockery, will stop this. China will be embarrassed by his implication that they’ve done nothing useful, and do something useful, finally, and stop North Korea – before Trump tweets again. Donald Trump doesn’t need to do anything himself. The tweets do all the work. That’s the power of scorn, from the man who is awesome.
Paul Waldman doesn’t buy that:
On the many occasions over the past five months where President Trump demonstrated his deep ignorance, his alarming impulsiveness, his bottomless need for praise or his tendency to lash out when criticized, one common response has been to ask, “What happens when he faces a genuine crisis, with the need to make difficult decisions and with lives at stake?”
We’re there now:
This is an outcome national security experts have worried and warned about for some time, and one that Trump himself pledged would never happen under his watch. We could be headed for a military crisis with the potential to cost thousands or even millions of lives, the outcome depending on Trump’s strategic thinking and good judgment.
Good luck with that:
During the 2016 campaign, you’d sometimes hear Republicans say that in contrast with that feckless and weak Barack Obama, Trump is so strong, so resolute, so virile that our enemies would get one look at him and retreat in fear, never to bother us again. Donald Trump himself said some version of this many times, not just in general but with regard to North Korea specifically. A few weeks before taking office, he tweeted, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Well, now it has happened, apparently because Kim Jong Un does not whimper in terror at the thought of being put in his place by Donald Trump.
That was the idea:
The administration’s approach to North Korea has been a combination of public chest-thumping and a hope that China would take care of the problem for us. In April, Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and apparently believed that once he presented Xi with a truly spectacular piece of chocolate cake, then the premier would put a prompt end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Xi attempted to educate Trump on the complexities of the situation. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said.
But as we’ve seen in other areas, such as health care, while Trump can be disabused of his childishly simplistic view of a policy challenge, his newfound appreciation for the complexity of an issue will be only temporary. Before long, he goes right back to thinking there are easy solutions to every problem.
It’s not just him either:
Just a few days later, Vice President Pence went to South Korea and issued stern warnings to Kim about how strong and resolute Trump is. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve,” Pence said, then went to the demilitarized zone and stared manfully at North Korean territory while the cameras clicked away. “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face,” he said afterward.
The administration didn’t place all its hopes in the power of Mike Pence’s face, however. Whenever the subject of North Korea came up, Trump and members of his administration would repeat that “the era of strategic patience is over,” without saying exactly what era we’re in now. A week ago the administration imposed sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea, but that didn’t have a transformative effect on China’s perspective.
Then there were the tweets – “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
Waldman is puzzled:
It’s hard to tell what kind of “heavy move” Trump thinks China might put on North Korea, and I doubt he knows himself. The unfortunate fact is that we have no good options here. We can threaten a strike against North Korea, but the result of that would be massive casualties in South Korea. The New York Times described the problem:
“Even the most limited strike risks staggering casualties, because North Korea could retaliate with the thousands of artillery pieces it has positioned along its border with the South. Though the arsenal is of limited range and could be destroyed in days, the United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis, recently warned that if North Korea used it, it ‘would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.'”
That’s not to mention the fact that if Kim truly thought he was about to be overthrown, he might unleash whatever nuclear weapons he has, along with any other weapons of mass destruction the country possesses.
There are no good options here:
The idea that Kim will voluntarily halt his missile and nuclear weapons programs because the president sent some more tough-talkin’ tweets and the vice president made his “resolute” face seems highly unlikely. Given the fact that a military strike from the United States could set off another Korean War, negotiations with the North seem like a logical part of the solution, but there are some reasons that might not happen. We don’t have much diplomatic capability these days; the State Department is barely functioning, and among the many key positions for which the Trump administration has not even bothered to nominate someone is ambassador to South Korea. And it’s clear that the president, for all his talk of deal-making, sees negotiation with other countries as a sign of weakness.
There’s that, and that “America First” thing:
There are some things we can do to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, but to be really effective they require the cooperation of other countries. Trump has made that much more difficult with the contempt he has shown for the very idea of international cooperation, by belittling NATO and pulling out of the Paris climate accord. There aren’t many countries that are going to join us in a combined effort just because we ask.
It’s also important to understand that as much as we see Kim as a lunatic or a buffoon, if his goal is the survival of his regime, pursuing nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them is perfectly rational. After all, Saddam Hussein didn’t have them, and look what happened to him. The higher the cost of a military strike against North Korea, the safer he’ll feel.
That leaves this:
As the U.S. military commander on the Korean Peninsula said Tuesday in a joint statement with his South Korean counterpart, “Self-restraint – which is a choice – is all that separates armistice and war.”
Can President Trump exercise that restraint? What happens when in a moment of anger he suggests a military strike? Will his saner advisers be able to rein in his worst impulses? How important will it be for Trump to save face and look strong? Given his thin skin, how much of an impact will personal attacks from Kim and criticisms at home have on his decision-making? How will he react when faced with a choice between two bad options?
Don’t ask. You don’t want to know the answer – but there’s that other question. Put aside Trump’s “deep ignorance, his alarming impulsiveness, his bottomless need for praise or his tendency to lash out when criticized” and all the rest. He must have a general idea of what he wants to do about North Korea, when he’s feeling calm, when (if ever) he’s not obsessing about how everyone is out to get him – and America – but mostly him. He must have thought about this.
Philip Bump says no, that Trump has never had a plan for dealing with North Korea:
We forget sometimes that President Trump’s political rhetoric was forged not over years of policymaking or in discussions with experts on foreign policy and domestic issues, but in weekly phone interviews with “Fox and Friends.” Before he declared his candidacy, the real estate developer and TV personality would appear on the program every Monday morning, weighing in on the issues of the day as the hosts offered their now-familiar lack of criticism of his musings.
Bump has done his homework:
On April 8, 2013, for example, Trump called in to discuss a variety of subjects: his show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” WrestleMania – oh, and North Korea.
Host Steve Doocy broached that subject by noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might soon test a nuclear weapon “or do something dopey like that” – but that China might actually be starting to put pressure on the rogue nation.
“Well, I think China has total control over the situation,” Trump responded. North Korea “wouldn’t exist for a month without China. And I think China, frankly, as you know – and I’ve been saying it for a long time, and people are starting to see that I’m right – China is not our friend.”
He had been saying this for a while, in fact. He tweeted about it in March of that year, saying that, “China could solve this problem easily if they wanted to, but they have no respect for our leaders.” A few weeks later, another tweet: “North Korea can’t survive, or even eat, without the help of China. China could solve this problem with one phone call – they love taunting us!”
How did “Fox and Friends” reply to Trump’s argument? Well, the conversation quickly transitioned to Trump having been inaugurated into the pro wrestling Hall of Fame.
Okay, that’s not fair. Trump was just noodling around. He wasn’t running for anything, but then he was:
During the Republican primary debates last year, Trump’s argument was consistent: North Korea was China’s problem, and China wasn’t dealing with it because they didn’t respect President Barack Obama since Obama wouldn’t strong-arm them. In a January 2016 debate, Trump argued that China was “ripping us on trade” and that the country was “devaluing their currency,” implying that he might use tariffs and a crackdown on that manipulation to bring China to heel on the North Korea issue.
The following month, Trump put the whole issue in China’s lap:
“I deal with them. They tell me. They have total, absolute control, practically, of North Korea. They are sucking trillions of dollars out of our country – they’re rebuilding China with the money they take out of our country. I would get on with China, let China solve that problem. They can do it quickly and surgically. That’s what we should do with North Korea.”
In a debate the following March, Trump criticized how Obama and other presidents had handled tensions, saying that “every time this maniac from North Korea does anything, we immediately send our ships. We get virtually nothing.”
Okay, he shifted blame from China to Obama:
To the New York Times at that time, Trump was explicit in his charge that Obama was impotent on the issue.
“China says well we’ll try. I can see them saying, ‘We’ll try, we’ll try.’ And I can see them laughing in the room next door when they’re together. So China should be talking to North Korea. But China’s tweaking us. China’s toying with us. They are when they’re building in the South China Sea. They should not be doing that but they have no respect for our country and they have no respect for our president.”
In a speech in April 2016, Trump said that “President Obama watches helplessly as North Korea increases its aggression and expands even further with its nuclear reach. Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade rules – or apply the leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea.”
Obama was a sweet target there, but then he shifted blame once again, from Obama to “that” woman:
Once he won the GOP presidential nomination, Trump repeatedly hammered Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on her failure to curtail the North Korea problem when she was the secretary of state. His campaign created a lengthy list of ways in which Clinton had failed, citing news reports of successful nuclear tests and rocket launches a few months into Clinton’s State Department tenure…
During the general-election debates, Trump stuck to the same theme. “China should solve that problem for us,” he said in September 2016. “China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”
And then he won the election:
When Trump met with Obama during the presidential transition, Obama reportedly warned Trump that North Korea would be the most urgent problem he would face. Trump, during that period, continued to argue that China must address the North Korea threat and that, under his watch, no North Korean weapon could strike the United States.
And then he changed his mind again:
In April of this year, with the 100-day mark of his presidency looming, Trump told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo that getting China to fix the problem was not that simple. Describing a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, Trump said that North Korea was the first thing he brought up. However, Xi “then explain[ed] thousands of years of history with Korea. Not that easy.”
“In other words,” Trump said, “not as simple as people would think.”
Since his inauguration, his tone on Twitter has oscillated between blaming China for North Korea and dismissing China as unnecessary in containing the problem.
Bump documents that in detail and adds this:
The reason for this back-and-forth is obvious: Trump promised that he could put pressure on the Chinese to cut off North Korea, forcing that nation to end its nuclear ambitions. But once Trump took office, that policy proved to be much harder than he’d presented. So, lacking an obvious solution (since none exists), he continues to try to blame China’s policy while explaining why the Chinese haven’t been moved to action.
As he’s done so, he’s been put in the uncomfortable position of having to wave away his past promises. On labeling China a currency manipulator, for example, he told “Fox and Friends” in April that he wouldn’t press that issue as long as China was working with the United States on North Korea.
And finally it came down to this:
During a news conference in February, Trump insisted to reporters that, in essence, his plans for North Korea were none of their business.
“I don’t have to tell you. I don’t want to be one of these guys that say, ‘Yes, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea. And I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do with Iran. You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question.”
Bump sees the problem here:
The president’s current conundrum is twofold. First, there’s no easy solution. Second, Trump promised that there was one. Had his policy been crafted by a team other than Fox’s early-morning talk show hosts that second problem might not exist.
That’s a useful look back. Trump never had a North Korea policy – just an ever-changing list of those who were to blame and the vague idea that China would fix everything, not us – but that was then and this is now. China isn’t going to fix things for us and tweets won’t help. Ask someone who knows, like Laura Rosenberger, the director for China and Korea at the National Security Council under Obama and a member of the “six-party talks” delegation on North Korea’s nuclear program in the George W. Bush administration. She knows a few things, and she knows this:
North Korea will parse every word of Trump’s Twitter statements to try to understand what they mean. That’s because North Korea uses its own propaganda mouthpieces in an intricate way to signal its intentions to both internal and external audiences. As a government official working on North Korea, I spent hours working with analysts poring over North Korean statements to understand Pyongyang’s thinking – whether and how it differs from past statements – and cutting through the bluster to identify the core point it was communicating. Its words are carefully chosen, and it uses different formulas to send different signals.
We know from watching Pyongyang’s reactions to previous U.S. statements that it read our words in a similar way. North Korean officials will look for clear signals of intention in Trump’s tweets. The problem is, it’s not clear that Trump has any idea what his intentions are. He is sending signals that foreign officials will attach meanings to – meanings he may not have intended and might not even realize he’s sending.
That’s a serious problem:
Trump urged China to “put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.” It’s not clear that he has any idea of what a “heavy move” by China would mean – but Kim Jong Un may well read that to be a call for military action, which in a worst-case scenario could prompt him to take preemptive action. It’s not clear what Trump would do to back up whatever a “heavy move” might be, either.
In fact, it’s not clear that Trump has any sense of what our strategy toward North Korea is. And despite attempts by members of his Cabinet to articulate a strategy through clearer messaging, such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ speech on North Korea at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Trump’s words effectively nullify them in Pyongyang – where the idea that the president’s statements would matter less than those of his subordinates simply would not compute. The remarks of his Cabinet officials become less credible in foreign capitals when the commander in chief conveys a different message in 140 characters.
It’s clear that Trump wants China to do more – he sent off one final tweet before boarding Air Force One for Poland on Wednesday saying “so much for China working with us.” But it’s simply not as easy as demanding it be so. Getting China to do more on North Korea takes a clear articulation of what we want them to do, and the consequences for failing to do so. We cannot simply wash our hands of the problem and hope China takes care of it. But issuing vague demands on Twitter will only generate confusion in Beijing. Words that Pyongyang could see as threatening military action may actually elicit the opposite reaction in Beijing, as China would probably not want North Korea to believe it is coordinating with the United States on such a plan.
But wait, there’s more:
Our allies are also left confused by Trump’s messaging. It’s not clear what Trump means when he says that its “hard to believe South Korea and Japan will put up with this for much longer.” But Tokyo will surely recall Trump’s statement during the campaign that if Japan and North Korea went to war, “Good luck. Enjoy yourself, folks.” His initial reaction failed to provide the kind of reassurance about defense cooperation that both Seoul and Tokyo expect. South Korea and Japan may well be wondering whether they can still count on the United States.
No one knows that now:
Trump’s vague, blustery words, unattached to any strategy and without any plan to back up whatever he did mean, will undermine both our deterrence and our reassurance, which we have spent decades building. This could lead to miscalculation by North Korea or our allies. Such miscalculation could lead to war: Trump could literally tweet us into a nuclear war.
That’s quite possible:
We know that Kim Jong Un is thin-skinned and will probably take Trump’s comment about “this guy” as a personal insult. Or Kim may be confused – after all, just a few months ago, Trump said he would be “honored” to meet with Kim under the right circumstances. To be clear, I don’t care at all about Kim’s feelings. But I do care about whether an offhand, hotheaded remark could provoke Kim to take actions that would have real consequences. Picking a Twitter fight with a nuclear-armed dictator is not wise…
Laura Rosenberger doesn’t think that North Korea, embarrassed by Trump’s mockery, will stop this, or that China will be embarrassed by his implication that they’ve done nothing useful, and do something useful, before Trump tweets again. She doesn’t believe in the power of scorn from the man who is sure he is awesome – because he isn’t awesome. The Korean Bell of Friendship in Angel’s Gate Park down in San Pedro is awesome.
Gerald Ford – a dull and decent and thoughtful man who smoked a pipe – was president when that was dedicated. Gerald Ford knew when it was time to forget all the insults and grievances and blame and move on. He pardoned Richard Nixon and pulled the plug on what was left of the Vietnam War. Donald Trump is neither dull (in one sense) nor decent nor thoughtful and he will tweet us into the next war. It could be the last one.