Trump takes a ‘try everything’ approach to North Korea

US president ‘torn between competing advice’ on how to respond to threats

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday, August 9 that Donald Trump was trying to send a strong message to North Korea when he said it would face "fire and fury" if it threatened the United States. Video: Reuters

First it was a hamburger; now it is “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.

US president Donald Trump’s overtures to his North Korean counterpart have veered from a lightweight invitation for supper to the language of atomic warfare in little more than a year.

His rhetoric is part of a "try everything" strategy that blows hot and cold in an effort to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and to give up its fast-advancing nuclear missile programme.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an undated photograph released by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15th, 2017, following the test launch of a long-range strategic ballistic rocket. Photograph: KCNA via Reuters

"This concept of threatening with one hand and suggesting talks with the other threatens to completely undermine the diplomatic overtures and increase the potential for conflict," said Jenny Town, North Korea programme manager at the US-Korea Institute, who added that the tension was the highest she has seen so far.


North Korea and the US are trading increasingly incendiary threats. North Korea – an autocratic state whose nuclear ambition is enshrined in its constitution – said on Tuesday it was considering attacking Guam, a small US island territory south of Japan, following Trump's invective.

Perhaps worse, Trump may have drawn himself a red line he is obliged to act on should North Korea fail to heed his warning, after promising to act in response to “any more threats” from North Korea.

Those familiar with the matter say Trump, who only three months ago said he would be "honoured" to meet supreme leader Kim Jong Un, is torn between competing advice.

“There is a camp that believes we should push very hard – even to the point of launching a pre-emptive strike,” said a person familiar with the matter, who characterised the second camp as preferring to pursue talks, but having little to show for it amid North Korea’s rapidly accelerating nuclear efforts.

“The first camp is going to win the argument by default unless the second camp can actually walk into [Trump’s] office and prove they have something real,” said the person. “No one in the administration, including [Trump] cares about regime change. All they care about is removing the military threat to the US.”

Kim hides much of his nuclear material deep in mountain hide-outs and his large conventional, nuclear and biochemical arsenals could wreak havoc on South Korea's 10m-strong capital Seoul, which lies only 50km south of the border.

Military officials have updated complex US war plans every year since the end of the Korean war in 1953, although defence secretary and soldier-philosopher Jim Mattis is among the most senior of those who stress war would be "catastrophic" and has repeatedly advised "self-restraint".

But while a major war would probably trigger millions of casualties, Mattis has said the US could meet any threat with “effective and overwhelming” force.

“We always maintain a high state of readiness and have the capabilities to counter any threat, to include those from North Korea,” said a Pentagon official on Tuesday. “Our commitment to the defence of our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, remains ironclad.”

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is in Asia seeking a policy of "peaceful pressure" combining sanctions and regional lobbying while looking to reassure Kim that he and his regime are not at risk. He has said Washington will consider talks so long as Pyongyang stops its missile launches, suggesting the US sees such an outcome "as the best signal that North Korea could give us".

Intelligence officials often frame North Korea’s leader as a rational actor, calculating that while his nuclear programme has buttressed his leadership, he also knows that detonating a bomb would be “a regime-ending moment” because the US would move swiftly to obliterate targets.

But Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo, who says Trump asks him daily about the nuclear aspirant, appeared to take a tougher line when he said last month it would be good to "separate" the regime from the people. Even Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, has also on occasion suggested the US was exhausting its diplomatic options.

“The North Koreans need to realise that if they don’t give the second camp some ammunition – some indication that there is a path to sincere and effective talks that could address the US concerns – the first camp is going to win and it is going to be a bloodbath,” said the person familiar with the matter. “It’s up to them to decide.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017