WASHINGTON — True to form, President Donald Trump sowed policy confusion with a tweet.
Declaring Wednesday that “talking is not the answer” on North Korea, Trump’s message appeared to clash with efforts by his Cabinet members to safeguard the possibility of a diplomatic solution as Kim Jong Un’s military races toward mastering a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach America.
The president’s morning tweet came a day after a highly provocative North Korean missile test that flew over Japan, a close American ally, potentially endangering civilians on the ground. On Wednesday, Kim called for more weapons launches in the Pacific.
“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” Trump tweeted.
The statement raised fresh uncertainty about the Trump administration’s strategy for North Korea. How the U.S. plans address the North’s growing nuclear capabilities is of increasing urgency not just in Northeast Asia, but also in the United States. Last month, the isolated, communist country tested for the first time a missile that could potentially strike the U.S. mainland.
Trump didn’t spell out what he meant by “extortion,” but he appeared to be referring to the $1.3 billion the U.S. has provided in aid to North Korea since 1995. Most of that has been food and fuel.
Criticism of past administrations’ failures to halt North Korea’s march toward nuclear weapons has been a recurrent theme from Trump. However, his comment overlooked that fact there’s been virtually no U.S. aid to North Korea since early 2009. Talks also have been in limbo for years. The last formal negotiation between Washington and Pyongyang on the nuclear issue occurred in 2012.
Eliminating the possibility of new negotiations could limit U.S. options. It also risks increasing the chance of military confrontation between nuclear-armed powers.
Within hours of Trump’s tweet, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis appeared to contradict him.
“We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said as he met with his counterpart from South Korea for talks on military readiness.
The U.S.-allied government supports, in theory, greater diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang. If war were to ever break out, millions of South Koreans would immediately find themselves within range of the North’s large conventional weapons arsenal.
In Geneva, Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, sought to explain the president’s tweet.
Trump was expressing his frustration at North Korea’s “dangerous and provocative threats,” Wood said. But like Mattis, he said the U.S. remained willing to discuss the North’s denuclearization.
“The United States is open to trying to deal with this question diplomatically, but the other side is not,” Wood told reporters.
It’s not the first time Trump has complicated his administration’s national security message via social media.
Last month, as aides worked to defuse tensions between Qatar and its Arab neighbours, Trump blindsided them by tweeting that Qatar funded terrorism. The gas-rich monarchy hosts 11,000 U.S. troops.
Trump also surprised officials with tweets on Russia and banning transgender people in the military.
Supporters of U.S. engagement with North Korea argue that periods when the U.S. is talking and providing aid to the country have proved the most successful in curbing its weapons development. In the past five years, without formal talks, the North’s technological strides have been most rapid.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week hinted at possible direct talks if North Korea demonstrated its sincerity by stopping weapons tests. The U.S. also has been maintaining a diplomatic back channel with North Korea.
The immediate outlook for diplomacy, however, appears bleak.
On Wednesday, North Korea’s Kim called for more weapons launches into the Pacific Ocean. The Korean Central News Agency said the launch that overflew Japan was of an intermediate-range missile that the North first successfully tested in May and threatened to fire into waters near Guam earlier this month. It described the launch as a “muscle-flexing” countermeasure to U.S.-South Korean military drills that conclude Thursday.
Trump offered a surprisingly subdued, initial response to the Japan overflight Tuesday, without any of the bombast of earlier this month when he warned the North of “fire and fury” if its threats persist. He said “all options are on the table,” a standard formulation signalling Washington hasn’t ruled out military action.
While the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned the launch as “outrageous,” there was no move to impose more sanctions.
At the disarmament body in Geneva, North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol said the council’s statement revealed Washington’s “evil intention to obliterate the DPRK’s sovereignty and rights to existence and development.”