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Trump tones down his language against North Korea but delivers a muddled message

President Trump delivers a speech at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea on Nov. 8.
(Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)
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As he nears the end of a grueling tour of Asia, President Trump is receiving praise for avoiding the sort of insulting and confrontational language that so often has exasperated his foreign-policy advisors and alarmed U.S. allies. That is admittedly setting a low bar for diplomatic success, but it’s something.

In a speech to the South Korean parliament, Trump warned North Korea not to test the United States, but there was no repetition of his threat of “fire and fury.” In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump — who last year complained that China was “ripping us off” — said that the U.S. sought a “fair and reciprocal” trading relationship with that country.

This more conventionally civil tone is welcome. But when it came to substance, Trump communicated a muddled message on both trade and the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

On trade, even as Trump modulated his tone to the Chinese, he struck the same harsh notes in other Asian countries that he has back home, complaining about bad deals and cheating trade partners. His message to a group of Asian business leaders, many from countries still trying to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the president abandoned within days of taking office, was familiar: that the United States is through with multilateral agreements and would be looking out for No. 1.

The risk is that Trump’s approach in Asia won’t translate to “America First,” but “America who?”

“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” Trump told business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Friday. “I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.” That vision of a fight for dominance seems impossible to reconcile with Trump’s call in China for “fair and reciprocal” trade.

In fact, this commercial isolationism actually harms U.S. interests. It reduces the United States to a spectator as Xi positions his country as the champion of globalism and the potential hub of future trading regions. The risk is that Trump’s approach in Asia won’t translate to “America First,” but “America who?”

On North Korea, Trump refrained from the sort of bellicose language that he has used in the past, notably in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September in which he boasted that the U.S. could “totally destroy” North Korea.


Instead, in his speech to the South Korean National Assembly, he offered a more oblique warning: “America does not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will never run from it.” And while he excoriated North Korean leader Kim Jong Il for presiding over a “cult” animated by a “dark fantasy,” he didn’t call Kim “Little Rocket Man.”

In addition to lowering the rhetorical temperature, Trump offered hints that he might be open to compromise on matters of substance connected to North Korea’s nuclear threat. For example, during a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump said, “It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal.”

The problem is that it remains unclear under what circumstances Trump would be willing to have the U.S. resume negotiations with Pyongyang. After he mentioned that North Korea should make a deal, he was asked if he was proposing direct talks and he replied: “I don’t want to say that.” In his speech to the South Korean National Assembly, he said: “We are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program.”

Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that he favors a more flexible approach. In August, Tillerson said that “the best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches” — suggesting that cessation of missile testing would be enough to get talks going. (Adding to the confusion, a State Department spokeswoman on Thursday said that “now is not the time for talks” but that things could change “if North Korea is showing that it is serious in its interest to denuclearize.”)

North Korea shows no sign of being willing to renounce nuclear weapons altogether. But it might be willing to engage in negotiations without preconditions. Such talks could help to lower tensions and perhaps lead to a freeze on testing by North Korea, a development that the U.S. and its allies might accept as a desirable interim step. If the administration wants to keep that option on the table, the president needs to watch his words more carefully.

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