In his first three months, Donald Trump’s administration has begun to wrestle with the seemingly intractable nature of American foreign-policy headaches—the sorts of problems that bedevil each president, but which each rookie seems to think, at least for a time, he can solve.
But Trump’s problem is not just that the problems are tough. It’s that his administration is unable to articulate what American policy even is. This was true of Syria, a realm in which multiple U.S. officials gave conflicting interpretations of U.S. policy in the days after missile strikes on the Assad government. And it is true halfway around the world with North Korea, where, as if the actions of Kim Jong Un’s government were not inscrutable enough on their own, the U.S. line seems to change frequently.
March 16: “A different approach”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Japan, says that “a different approach is required” on North Korea, though he doesn’t outline quite what that would mean.
“Well, I think it’s important to recognize that the diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed,” he says. “So we have 20 years of failed approach, and that includes a period in which the United States provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway.”
March 17: “The era of strategic patience is over”
The following day in Seoul, Tillerson shocked the world with a statement just before meeting with South Korea’s foreign minister.
“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson says. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically-prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”
Tillerson also rejects negotiation with North Korea: “Conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume.” Observers wonder whether Tillerson is suggesting forced regime change or simply positioning the U.S. “His warning on Friday about new ways to pressure the North was far more specific and martial sounding than during the first stop of his three-country tour, in Tokyo on Thursday,” The New York Times reports. “His inconsistency of tone may have been intended to signal a tougher line to the Chinese before he lands in Beijing on Saturday.”
April 2: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will”
In an interview with the Financial Times, President Trump adopts a warlike tone as well, suggesting willingness to take unilateral military action.
“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” he says. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.” He adds: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”
April 4: “We’ve said enough”
Two days later, after Pyongyang launches a missile, Tillerson baffles the world by simply refusing to say anything at all. “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile,” he says in a statement. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
April 9: Dispatching the U.S.S. Carl Vinson
Amid increasing worries about war, the U.S. Pacific Command announces it is sending the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group toward the Korean Peninsula, in what is viewed as a threat toward North Korea. The White House and Pentagon trumpet the news, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer saying, “We are sending an armada.” It only becomes clear on April 18 that, in fact, the Vinson was 3,500 miles away and sailing the opposite direction at the time.
April 16: “The patience of the United States has run out”
By mid-April, Tillerson’s remarks about the “era of strategic patience” seem more mysterious than ever, especially given his tightlipped April 4 statement. Was the original phrase just a slip of the tongue?
Apparently not. On a trip to the DMZ, Vice President Pence repeats it. “The era of strategic patience is over,” Pence says. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change. We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable.”
April 19: “The sword stands ready”
Three days later, aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan in Tokyo Bay, Pence is even more direct about military threats: “The United States of America will always seek peace but under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready.”
April 26: “Return to the path of dialogue”
After briefing members of Congress about North Korea, Tillerson issues a joint statement with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
“We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on the D.P.R.K. in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue,” they say. “The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Allies.”
The statement is notable for its call for talks, especially given Tillerson’s statement on March 17—one in line with traditional U.S. policy—that North Korea must make concessions before talks begin. Meanwhile, the U.S. Pacific Command tweets that the U.S. is not interested in overthrowing Kim:
April 27: “Obviously, that would be the way we would like to solve this”
A day later, Tillerson stuns the world by going even further, supporting direct talks with Pyongyang. NPR’s Steve Inskeep asks, “Do you intend direct talks with North Korea? Is that your goal?” Tillerson replies, “Obviously, that would be the way we would like to solve this, but North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the right agenda. And the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.”
He also does not lay out any specific preconditions for negotiation.
That represents a major shift, since Presidents George W. Bush and Obama both insisted on multilateral talks with North Korea—Obama after 2012 when it became apparent that three rounds of direct talks had yielded little. It also seems at odds with President Trump’s many recent statements about how China is working with the U.S. to solve the North Korea problem.
April 27: “A major, major conflict with North Korea”
Meanwhile, Trump, speaking to Reuters, sends contradictory signals. “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” he says. There’s no direct factual contradiction between Tillerson’s and Trump’s lines—one could favor direct negotiation while still recognizing the chance of warfare—but the divergence between the conciliatory and bellicose approaches coming from different parts of the administration is jarring.
Meanwhile, Trump’s statement that he’d like South Korea to pay for a missile-defense system and his threat to cancel a free-trade agreement with the country roils the American ally.
April 28: “Before we can ever consider talks”
The following day, chairing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Tillerson again changes his course, setting a firm precondition for any talks with Pyongyang. “North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and its allies before we can even consider talks,” he says. “We will not reward their bad behavior with talks.”
However, Tillerson also emphasizes that the U.S. is not trying to topple Kim. “Our goal is not regime change, nor do we desire to threaten the North Korean people or destabilize the Asia Pacific region,” he said.
* * *
The many shifts are jarring—it is hard to discern what the U.S. actually thinks and intends to do in North Korea, when the nation’s top diplomat keeps contradicting himself, the president has his own line, and even matters as simple as naval deployments can’t be taken at face value. One consistent thread has been the U.S. insistence that all options are on the table, but even that is not entirely true, since the U.S. says that regime change is not a possibility.
As with Syria, the confusion raises a series of questions about the administration. Are the differences a product of diverging viewpoints jockeying for primacy in the White House? Is there insufficient communication between Tillerson and the White House? Is Tillerson simply very bad at messaging, and is reversing himself unintentionally? Or is it simply that the U.S. doesn’t have a coherent North Korea policy from which he can draw? A coherent policy is not sufficient—neither Bush nor Obama was able to solve the riddle of North Korea—but each day presents more evidence that the Trump administration simply hasn’t made up its mind yet.