Is Donald Trump trying to “out-North Korea the North Koreans” at this moment of high tension with Pyongyang? The question is worth asking after veteran US ambassador Christopher Hill, who served in South Korea, came up with the explanation for the Trump administration’s strategy.
All the signs point that way. The administration appears to be using several layers of messaging to reach North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.
First, there is rhetorical flourish aplenty, with secretary of state Rex Tillerson admitting that military action is “an option”, vice-president Mike Pence warning that “the era of strategic patience is over” and national security adviser HR McMaster obliquely referencing the missile strike on Syria and the giant bomb on Afghanistan to declare “our president is clearly comfortable making tough decisions”.
Second, there is a parallel show of force with the Trump administration planning to send an aircraft carrier battle group. And the US-South Korea annual joint military drills, which began last month, are described by an American official as the largest ever.
But the third layer of the messaging is just as significant as the other two. It is taking the form of a barely perceptible shrugging off of the possibility of outright war. Consider Gen McMaster’s cautious add-on to the militaristic rhetoric on North Korea. “It’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully,” he said. The era of strategic patience may be over but it has been replaced by something harder-edged, yet still inclined to peace: strategic coercion.
None of this sits well with rising anxiety in much of the world over intemperate talk and tweets from Mr Trump about North Korea. Google, the search engine, has reported a spike in online queries for four phrases — “World War 3”, “Trump War”, “nuclear war” and “going to war”. The Chinese have been strenuously warning against the gathering “storm clouds” and have dolefully pointed out that the United States and North Korea “are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent.”
The Japanese government has been openly discussing the possible removal of its estimated 57,000 citizens in South Korea should war break out. It has also expressed consternation about the possibility of North Korean refugees arriving in boats on its shores. A North Korean army spokesman, meanwhile, has emphasised the difference between his country and Iraq or Libya, who are “miserable victims of (US) aggression, and Syria, which did not respond immediately even after it was attacked”.
Mr Trump’s own rhetoric is at least partly responsible for some of these doomsday scenarios. In early April, he airily told the Financial Times that the US would like China’s help “to solve North Korea” but if this was not forthcoming “we will”. Last week, he repeated the point, which Pyongyang answered in its typically punchy way. North Korea’s vice foreign minister Han Song Ryol said that if the US continues on its “more vicious and more aggressive” course under Mr Trump, “we will go to war if they choose”.
Does Mr Trump seem prepared to choose war? No, but he is justifiably unwilling to be seen to maintain an uncertain peace, reducing the US to the role of an impotent superpower, mutely forced to look away from North Korea’s accelerated nuclear weapons programme and blocking its ears to Mr Kim’s warmongering threats and imprecations.
That’s where the multiple messaging comes in. It is grave and resolute enough to indicate the depths of US concern and give the North Koreans pause for thought. But Gen McMaster’s assurance of “all actions … short of a military option” opens a small path towards peace through the thicket of bristling displays of martial might on both sides.
There are signs the messaging may be working. Pyongyang did not, as might have been expected, mark the weekend’s politically significant date — the birth anniversary of its founder, Mr Kim’s grandfather — by conducting its sixth nuclear test in a decade. Instead, it restricted itself to a display of military hardware and an unsuccessful missile launch.
Strategically and perhaps uncharacteristically, Mr Trump stayed silent, failing to execute the Twitter equivalent of exultant war whoops.
What happens next is anybody’s guess but the multiple messaging may establish the right conditions to pursue the sort of grand bargain that would satisfy honour all around, induce North Korea to suspend its nuclear programme and Mr Trump to claim a victory for his much-touted ability to do “good deals”.
Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who secured the release of detained Americans in eight formal and informal diplomatic visits to North Korea, has been talking up the possibility for peace built on a US promise of energy assistance, the lifting of sanctions and humanitarian support.
It would have to be a “multi-party deal”, he suggests, with buy-in from Japan, South Korea and China.
Implicit in that would be the unstated promise that the US would not seek to destabilise the regime, a fear that haunts North Koreans who often point to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi’s fate as a salutary lesson for leaders who eschew nuclear weapons.
If it were to happen, any grand bargain would not mean peace for all time. But it would give peace a chance.