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In Asia, an uncharacteristically muted Trump sends a mixed message to North Korea

During his swing through Asia this week, President Trump avoided the sort of inflammatory and insulting language about North Korea that has alarmed diplomats and set nerves on edge.

As The Times reported, there were no repeats of his threats of “fire and fury” and no sabotaging of his secretary of State. And although Trump in his speech to South Korea’s National Assembly on Tuesday accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of presiding over a “cult” animated by a “dark fantasy,” he didn’t call Kim “Little Rocket Man.”

Instead of asserting, as he did at the United Nations, that the U.S. could “totally destroy” North Korea, Trump offered this more oblique warning: “America does not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will never run from it. History is filled with discarded regimes that have foolishly tested America’s resolve.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that in Seoul, Trump had “invited the North Koreans to come to the table.” But Trump’s invitation came with conditions that Tillerson himself hasn’t always insisted on.

In August, the secretary of State seemed to suggest that the U.S. would reengage with North Korea if it stopped testing ballistic missiles. That, he said, would be “the best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk.”

But in his speech to the South Korean parliament, Trump seemed to dust off the previous U.S. position that any new negotiations must have the stated objective of North Korean denuclearization.

“We seek a future of light, prosperity, and peace,” Trump said. “But we are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program.”

This may be a good cop-bad cop strategy, with Tillerson in the good-cop role. (The secretary of State acknowledged in September that the U.S. and North Korea have been in “direct contact.” He told reporters: “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them, we do talk to them.”)

Of course, sometimes Trump himself plays the good cop. During a joint press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he said, “It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal.”

The question, of course, is what sort of deal. Expert opinion seems to be coalescing around the idea of negotiations without precondition that could lead to a freeze on North Korea’s testing of missiles and nuclear devices — a deal that the U.S. would be free to portray as an interim agreement along the way to denuclearization, but which North Korea could view as an end in itself. This would be a policy of containment in fact but not in name.

Even if such talks were slow to bear fruit, renewed negotiations — coinciding with a cessation of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests — would make everyone breathe more easily. Will Trump allow Tillerson to pursue that possibility?

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