The Trump administration sends mixed messages on North Korea


With few good military or diplomatic options and the danger clearly escalating, the Trump administration is struggling with how to confront a nuclear-armed North Korea that suddenly appears capable of hitting California and beyond with a ballistic missile.

As experts study whether Pyongyang’s second intercontinental missile test landed on target in the Sea of Japan, as initial reports indicated, or disintegrated after it reentered the atmosphere late Friday, as some evidence suggests, senior administration officials have given mixed messages about a possible U.S. response.

It’s unclear if the disparate messages — particularly over whether the U.S. seeks the ouster of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un — represent a deliberate effort to keep Pyongyang off guard as to U.S. intentions, or indicates ambivalence on a major foreign policy issue in a White House battling chaos on several fronts.


President Trump repeatedly insisted this week that he will “handle” North Korea and on Wednesday he signed legislation that will impose more sanctions on Pyongyang. But he has not indicated how he would defuse the mounting threat beyond demanding that China apply more political and economic pressure to rein in its neighbor.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves Thursday for an Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations security conference in Manila. Despite the rising tensions, he will not meet North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, while in the Philippines, officials said Wednesday.

But Tillerson used a news conference Tuesday at the State Department to seemingly speak directly to the leaders in Pyongyang.

“We do not seek a regime change,” he said. “We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel,” the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea.

“And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat,” he added. “But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.”

Tillerson described U.S. sanctions on North Korea and efforts to isolate it diplomatically, politically and economically as “peaceful pressure.”


CIA Director Mike Pompeo had suggested a more bellicose approach at a security conference in Colorado last month. He repeatedly called for separating Kim from his nuclear arsenal, saying the North Korean people “would love to see him go.”

“It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula,” Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum on July 21. “But the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today.”

He added: “So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two.”

Pompeo said the intelligence community and the Department of Defense have been tasked with drafting plans for what “ultimately needs to be achieved” with regard to North Korea’s nuclear threat.

“As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system,” Pompeo said. “The North Korean people I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see him go.”

Experts say North Korea still does not have a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. It also has not built a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop an ICBM and robust enough to survive the intense heat and pressure of reentry. But both those achievements now appear within reach.


After the latest test, the U.S. and its regional allies responded with a symbolic show of force.

On Saturday, U.S. and South Korean forces launched salvos of missiles into the sea from South Korea’s east coast. The next day, the U.S. Air Force flew two supersonic B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula along with fighter jets from Japan and South Korea.

U.S. forces in Alaska also conducted what officials described as a successful test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which was recently deployed in South Korea. They said the antimissile system detected, tracked and intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean.

Officials later acknowledged that the truck-mounted system is not capable of shooting down an ICBM and said the test had been previously scheduled.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Air force launched an unarmed Minuteman III from Vandenberg Air Force Base into the central Pacific. It was the fourth test of the ICBM, which can carry a nuclear warhead, from the Santa Barbara County base this year.

“North Korea remains the most urgent threat to regional stability,” said Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of the Air Force component in U.S. Pacific Command. “If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing.”


Defense Secretary James N. Mattis has sought to downplay the likelihood of a U.S. attack on North Korea. But he also has said Pyongyang must “change its behavior.”

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a U.S. military strike remains an option if all others fail, even though an armed conflict with Pyongyang could produce millions of casualties in the two Koreas and Japan.

“Many people have talked about military options with words like ‘unimaginable,’” Dunford said at the Aspen conference. “I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific … a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes.”

The mixed messages start from the White House, where Trump asserted Saturday on Twitter that China has done “NOTHING for us … just talk” to help with North Korea.

“We will no longer allow this to continue,” he added. “China could easily solve this problem!”

The State Department offered a different view Wednesday. Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said China has taken “unprecedented steps” to rein in North Korea.


“They realize that this is becoming a greater and greater threat to China’s own security,” she told reporters. China is showing “growing determination” to address the crisis but “can do a lot more,” she added.

“We would like to see more action, faster and more obvious, and quick results,” Thornton said. “But I think we’re not giving up yet.”

China has urged Washington to negotiate directly with Pyongyang, a prospect that Trump appeared to consider in May when he said he would be “honored” to meet with Kim “under the right circumstances.”

No such meeting appears likely. Tillerson repeated U.S. demands Tuesday that North Korea give up its nuclear arms unilaterally before any direct talks, a pre-condition that Kim’s government dismisses out of hand.

Some foreign policy experts have advocated for China to take the lead in talks patterned after the six-nation talks that brokered the Iranian nuclear disarmament deal in 2015.

Previous multilateral talks with Pyongyang collapsed in 2009 after the United Nations Security Council slapped new sanctions on North Korea for testing a three-stage rocket in violation of a U.N. resolution. Pyongyang pulled out of the talks in protest and they have not resumed.


For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter