North Korea provocatively test-fired another missile yesterday, which flew over Japan. It took Trump less than a day to undermine his administration’s own response:
Yet the wild card in the fresh attempt at message discipline is still Trump himself. About 24 hours after the White House statement was released, the president returned to the topic of North Korea on Twitter.
“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” Trump wrote. “Talking is not the answer!”
The White House had previously stated that “all options are on the table” in response to the test, but apparently for Trump those options don’t include any diplomatic ones. Given the dire consequences that military options would have, the only workable alternative would have to come through negotiations, but Trump’s obvious disdain for diplomacy prevents him from even entertaining the possibility. One thing that would make it easier for U.S. officials to cope with this problem is if the president stopped saying anything for a while, but that seems highly unlikely.
Besides sabotaging his Cabinet officials’ efforts, the problem with Trump’s statement is that it is both misleading and obtuse. Pretending that the U.S. has been “talking” with them consistently for a quarter-century relies on a faulty understanding of how North Korea obtained its nuclear arsenal. North Korea’s first nuclear tests came in response to the Bush administration’s decision to blow up the Agreed Framework while resorting to increased pressure. “Talking” isn’t what produced the current situation, but rather the pigheaded determination not to talk for fear of “rewarding” the other side. There is no effective “answer” to North Korean provocations that doesn’t eventually involve diplomatic engagement with them. That might not involve a lot of talk in public (indeed, the less of this we have the better for all concerned), but it should involve communicating regularly with North Korea and China in consultation with regional allies in order to calm things down.