CNN suggests that the Trump administration is sending out contradictory messages on its North Korea policy, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not to the extent that CNN would have its readers believe.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told NBC News Tuesday that President Donald Trump is considering the application of military force if North Korea continues to develop weapons that increasingly endanger the lives of American citizens. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said later in the day that the goal is to convince the North Koreans that the U.S. is not an enemy and pursue a diplomatic solution to the problem.
At first glance, the statements do appear to be very different, but a closer look at the rhetoric reveals that the administration’s line on North Korea is quite consistent, despite a few slip-ups here or there.
Maintaining that “all options remain on the table,” the Trump administration is pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which involves military deterrence, economic sanctions, and international pressure, to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, de-escalate tensions, and de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. If diplomacy fails, a military solution may be necessary, but such a move would be costly for all parties involved.
“We are going to continue to work the issue,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in May. “If this goes to a military solution, it’s going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale. So our effort is to work with the U.N., work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation.”
A military solution would exact a heavy toll.
“We would win at great cost,” Mattis told the House Appropriations Committee in June. “It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want.” The defense secretary’s statements highlights the administration’s strong desire to achieve a diplomatic solution, and the secretary of state’s comments have reflected that attitude.
“North Korea and its people need not fear the United States, or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea,” Tillerson explained at a news conference in Tokyo in March. “With this in mind, the United States calls on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and refrain from any further provocations.”
“We have reaffirmed our position towards North Korea,” he said Tuesday, telling a group of reporters, “We do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned after North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test in early July that Pyongyang’s actions are “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution” to the serious crisis on the peninsula. “One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction,” she added, expressing a position consistent with that of the defense secretary and the secretary of state.
“We should give Secretary Tillerson full support in attempting to resolve this diplomatically and economically even as we recognize that it may not happen, and there may have to be a follow-up option, which is the military option,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a conference.
“We have to entertain” the possibility of military action in North Korea, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Paul Selva told the Senate Arms Services Committee last month, but warned that “we need to think seriously about what the consequences of that action might be.”
Graham, sharing what he asserts President Donald Trump told him, stressed Tuesday that there are military alternatives. “There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” he said. “This man, Kim Jong Un, is threatening America with a nuclear-tipped missile.”
“President Trump doesn’t want a war, [but] … he is not going to allow this madman to have a missile that can hit America,” Graham added.
All of these statements are, for the most part, consistent and reflect a North Korea strategy which puts an emphasis on diplomacy, but keeps the possibility of military intervention for the security of America and its allies on the table.
The administration’s real problem is not the rhetoric, which could certainly be articulated more clearly. Rather, the problem is the lack of action to effectively address the problem.
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