President Donald Trump’s fiery rhetoric toward North Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s equally warlike responses, are provocative and worrisome. Fortunately, there is a lot happening behind the scenes that, if not reassuring, is not as bombastic as the rhetoric from the two leaders.
While Trump’s fiery rhetoric and Kim’s pledge to bomb Guam, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, rightly grabbed headlines last week, diplomatic communications continue between representatives of both countries and what is happening in Washington and Pyongyang doesn’t match the leaders’ rhetoric.
Back channel communications between the two countries have been going on for months, the Associated Press reported last week. Such communications had not occurred during the last seven months of the Obama administration, the AP reported, indicating that the Trump administration may be more open to finding a solution through dialogue than the president’s threats would suggest.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he is open to negotiations — if North Korea stops testing missiles that may be able to reach the United States.
Tillerson and Secretary of Defense John Mattis co-wrote a column, published Sunday in The Wall Street Journal, in which they said the U.S. had switched from “strategic patience” to “strategic accountability.” The U.S. goal, they wrote, is a denuclearized Korean peninsula. They addressed much of their concern to China, which recently voted for stiffer United Nations sanctions against North Korea. China does not want a neighbor with nuclear weapons but fears an exodus of refugees across it border if conditions get too bad in North Korea.
The combination of Trump’s hawkish language and the more measured comments from other top U.S. officials is causing confusion. This is a big concern in South Korea, according to Moon Chung-in, an adviser to South Korea’s president, the military publication Stars and Stripes reported.
“We do not expect that the president of the United States would make that kind of statement,” he said. “It is a chicken game, but I think what is needed right now is mutual restraint.”
On the military front, Trump’s claim that the U.S. is “ locked and loaded” and ready for war is an exaggeration. But the military is ready to support diplomatic and economic solutions, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told some reporters at a press conference in Seoul, South Korea.
“The military dimension today is directly in support of that diplomatic and economic effort,” Dunford said after meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul.
“It would be a horrible thing were a war to be conducted here on the peninsula, and that’s why we’re so focused on coming up with a peaceful way ahead,” said Dunford, a Marine whose father fought in the 1950-53 Korean War, Stars and Stripes reported.
And, on Tuesday, Kim said his country wouldn’t fire missiles at Guam at this time.
This offers some solace, but it does not excuse or dampen the consequences of Trump’s unnecessarily provocative threats to North Korea. Kim, of course, is also an unpredictable and irresponsible leader who likes boasts and bravado as much as Trump. It is a dangerous combination, which is all the more reason for calm, thoughtful rhetoric and actions.