Will the United States defeat the North Korean nuclear threat through “peaceful pressure” or “fire and fury”?
This week US Secretary of State and diplomatic good cop Rex Tillerson was in southeast Asia, working with allies to isolate and cajole Kim Jong-Un’s regime.
Meanwhile, back home, bad cop in chief President Donald Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Tillerson’s diplomatic track was already a steep and rocky trail — despite early success last week with the UN Security Council’s adoption of tough new sanctions against North Korea.
But bellicose outbursts from the president and some of his senior aides may have made that path even more challenging.
“The diplomatic process has been disrupted,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Normally what would happen is, after you have these kind of sanctions passed is that that would be the moment to say: ‘OK, now we have to give time for sanctions to work.'”
North Korea has made no attempt to tone down its language since Moscow and Beijing put aside their differences with Washington and voted to back the sanctions.
But while Kim’s regime has long been notorious for its colorful threats, Trump’s fiery language has no American precedent, and experts say it hurts diplomatic efforts.
“I don’t think it’s particularly helpful when it’s direct rhetorical threats,” Lisa Collins, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Without a broader overarching strategy to get North Korea to negotiate the denuclearization of the peninsula, war talk may just reinforce Kim’s grip on the regime.
“The creation of an external military threat helps Kim Jong-Un consolidate domestic power,” Collins warned.
Some Trump supporters in Washington have argued that his strong language and unpredictable stance keep US enemies on their toes and may help build diplomatic pressure.
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, worries that “miscalculation due to the mixed messages” could cause an escalation in the conflict.
Many of the experts who spoke to AFP concluded that North Korea has already passed a threshold by developing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
Diplomacy may still get Pyongyang to the table, but the immediate US goal has to shift from denuclearization to avoiding the threat of all-out nuclear war.
“There’s no room for anything else other than diplomacy,” said Jeffrey Lewis, arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“The window to attack them or convince them not to (develop the weapons) has closed.”
The regime of President Kim Jong-Un has long been notorious for its colorful threats but Trump’s fiery language has no precedent in the United States
As Tillerson flew back from the region, he made a pre-planned stop-over on the US territory of Guam, which Kim’s regime has explicitly targeted.
But even there, he brushed off concerns. “I think Americans should sleep well at night. I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.”
So who is one to believe? The commander in chief, seemingly laying the rhetorical groundwork for a pre-emptive strike? Or his loyal diplomat, still hopeful that China and Russia will help rein in Kim’s provocations?
White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, hired as an authority on the Islamist threat but an increasingly outspoken spokesman on other security issues, is clear.
“You should listen to the president. The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” he told the BBC.
Tillerson’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted that there is no division in the administration on North Korea and that “the pressure campaign is, in our opinion, working.”
And what of Trump? On Thursday, again speaking from his golf club in New Jersey, he praised his diplomats for the “great job” they did in getting the latest sanctions resolution passed.
Then he added: “But probably it will not be as effective as a lot of people think it can be, unfortunately.”
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