Defense

Mattis: Trump Admin Not As Conflicted On North Korea As It Seems

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The Trump administration is sending out some seemingly mixed signals on North Korea, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis says the administration is not as conflicted as it seems.

Mattis said Tuesday that his department “supports” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution. The Mattis’ comments come just days after the president appeared to rain on Tillerson’s parade, asserting that attempts to talk to North Korea are a waste of time.

Tillerson revealed over the weekend that Washington has back channels to Pyongyang and is probing opportunities for negotiations. He has repeatedly stated that the U.S. is open to dialogue and pursuing a diplomatic solution.

President Donald Trump then appeared to undercut Tillerson on Sunday with two surprising tweets.

The White House doubled down Monday, explaining that now is not the time to talk.

“The Defense Department supports fully Secretary Tillerson’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, adding that the Pentagon “remains focused on defense of the United States and our allies.”

There are several different theories about what is going on right now. One is the possibility that Trump and his team simply are not on the same page. The other is that Trump is playing bad cop while his top diplomat plays good cop.

For the second theory, some suggest that Trump may intentionally be executing a “madman strategy,” purposefully convincing North Korea and the countries supporting it that he might just be crazy enough to send in the troops. (RELATED: Is Trump Merely Acting ‘Crazy’ In Korea?)

On the alleged divide between Trump and his top diplomat, Mattis said he does “not see the divergence as strongly as some have interpreted it.” He indicated that he and Tillerson’s actions and statements are part of a whole of government approach designed to achieve a diplomatic solution, which involves putting pressure on China and ensuring that sanctions are implemented effectively but not necessarily talking to Pyongyang.

Either way, North Korea is definitely confused by the Trump administration’s actions and rhetoric on this issue.

“He might be irrational — or too smart. We don’t know,” Pak Song Il, the North Korean man tasked with understanding Trump, told New Yorker writer Evan Osnos on a recent trip to Pyongyang.

“When he speaks, I have to figure out what he means, and what his next move will be,” he explained. “This is very difficult.”

North Korean officials have also been reaching out to conservative think tank experts in an effort to get a read on the president and his administration. North Korea’s top “concern is Trump,” an individual with direct knowledge of the situation told The Washington Post. “They can’t figure him out.” They have reportedly asked about the apparent division between Trump and some of his senior officials, Mattis and Tillerson in particular.

“My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going, so they’re trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington,” Evans Revere, a former State Department official familiar with the regime who has taken part in Track 1.5 meetings with North Korean officials, revealed. “They haven’t seen the U.S. act like this before.”

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