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Why Trump's tweets puzzle North Korea

Michael Knigge
October 18, 2017

The US and South Korea are conducting joint war games while diplomats discuss what to do about Pyongyang's nuclear program. Thus far, Donald Trump's behavior has made Washington's North Korea policy hard to decipher.

Donald Trump
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson

It's not a bug; it's a feature. That is a slogan the Trump administration could use to describe its seemingly contradictory approach to dealing with North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program. It is an approach which has culminated in the president threatening to "totally destroy" the country and publicly rebuking his secretary of state on Twitter for seeking a diplomatic solution.    

As a result of this stance, if the Trump administration's goal was to sow confusion - even among North Korea scholars - about its policy toward the country, it has succeeded. 

"I think it points to division within the Trump administration rather than a well-planned good cop/bad cop strategy," said Gi-Wook Shin, the director of the Korea program and the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, via email. "At the same time, one could argue that these contradictory messages fit well with the Trump administration's somewhat paradoxical North Korea policy, 'maximum pressure, maximum engagement.'"

"I cannot quite explain the acceleration of military threats in the past weeks - whether they are part of a conscious strategy or whether they reflect the president's reaction to specific North Korean nuclear development steps," said Michael Mazarr, a Korea expert at the Rand Corporation.

Donald Trump cabinet meeting
Tillerson and Mattis have tried to counter Trump's bellicose statements about North KoreaImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Discrepancy with Trump's stance

It is widely thought that the top White House national security officials, Pentagon chief James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, are on the same page about North Korea, and that their joint stance was also reflected in the Trump administration's official North Korea policy review conducted earlier this year.

That review, according to US officials, recommended increased sanctions against Pyongyang and more pressure on China to use its leverage over the North Korean regime, but it did not advocate military options. That's why Washington's stated policy toward the country is generally regarded as a kind of continuation rather than a break with the Obama administration's stance.       

But what would otherwise appear as a traditional foreign policy approach becomes muddled through Donald Trump's repeated bellicose tweets against North Korea, often directed personally at its leader, Kim Jong Un.

Tweets can have consequences

And that's a problem, said Stanford Korea scholar Shin, because Trump's Twitter attacks against North Korea are not conducive to helping to resolve the nuclear standoff with the regime; they are counterproductive. "Publicly and personally attacking a nation's leader will achieve nothing, especially in a country like North Korea, where the Kim family is as revered as God."

While Trump's tweets may have succeeded in aggravating North Korea's leader, they also left the regime's officials scrambling to figure out how to interpret them.

Kim Jong Un Statement on Trump
Kim responded to Trump's comments by calling him a 'dotard' and 'deranged'Image: Reuters/KCNA

"One thing we have seen is that North Korean officials, in discussions with Western academics, seem confused," said RAND's Mazarr. "They don't know what to make of the US president. I have not seen any sign that they are so worried that they will surrender their nuclear arsenal, but they are probably more uncertain about the intentions of a US president than at any time since 1953."

And that, note the experts, is not a good thing. Because in a worst-case scenario, Trump's outbursts on social media could lead to an outbreak of hostilities, said Shin. "Yes, the president's tweeting has already triggered a psychological war with Kim Jong Un, with increasingly tougher insults from both sides. This war of words is what led the general public, both in the US and in South Korea, into panic and fear of a real war."

Boxed in

Trump's numerous outbursts on the issue, among them threatening the country with "fire and fury" and saying "military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely" do not just pose a problem for Pyongyang, but also for Washington, because they have a tendency to box the White House in.  

"Over time what they do achieve is to place US credibility on the line, because the president of the United States has made promises and threats that must be fulfilled if US credibility is to be sustained," Mazarr said. "In that sense, the trend of opinion expressed in multiple tweets could become the basis for hostilities."