North Korea conducted a more powerful nuclear test overnight, and they claimed that the test had been a success. Predictably, the president responded with a series of ill-advised tweets. This was the worst of the bunch:
South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
South Korea is finding that it is saddled with an irresponsible ally that indulges in a lot of provocative bluster. The latest nuclear and missile tests have not followed a period of diplomatic engagement, but have come on the heels of and in response to Trump’s own reckless threats. Incendiary rhetoric has not intimidated North Korea at all, nor was it likely to. Trump’s apparent rejection of a diplomatic resolution to the problem puts the U.S. and our regional allies in a serious bind.
Publicly berating an allied government for “appeasement” at any time is a clumsy and incompetent move. Doing so in this case risks opening up a wider rift with South Korea’s government at a time when there needs to be unity with U.S. allies in the region. The idiotic refrain that North Koreans “only understand one thing” (i.e., force) is a lazy and false assumption that hard-liners always use to discount the possibility of resolving a dispute peacefully. Instead of ratcheting up tensions further in this way, the president needs to stop making provocative statements, his officials need to repair the damage done to the relationship with Seoul, and the administration as a whole needs to accept that they are facing a serious but manageable problem in North Korea that requires a diplomatic effort coordinated with our regional allies. That can’t happen when the president is openly disparaging one of those allies and rejecting the idea of diplomatic engagement.