Ready to Talk to North Korea?

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

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Tom Brenner/The New York Times

The State Department press briefing room has traditionally been the place where the United States government has explained and promoted its foreign policy to the world. In six months as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson did not set foot there — until Tuesday, when he popped in to deliver a double-barreled message to North Korea about its rapidly expanding nuclear weapons and missile programs.

First, he asserted, the Trump administration is not seeking regime change in the North. It is, instead, seeking a “productive dialogue.” His comments, as surprising as his appearance, represented a sharp departure from the threats and harsh language that have dominated President Trump’s approach — and for a brief moment indicated a possibly productive shift from the tough-guy message that puts the onus on China to bring North Korea in line to a more nuanced, multidimensional approach to a grave and gathering nuclear threat.

But this, we have to keep reminding ourselves, is the Trump administration, and it wasn’t long before any confidence that Mr. Tillerson was speaking for the president, or that the national security team had agreed on a common strategy that included a diplomatic opening, was called into doubt. Flying to Washington from Europe on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence rejected the idea of talks with the North Koreans, saying that “engaging North Korea directly” was not presently in the cards.

Managing security challenges requires layered approaches, and it’s not unusual for senior officials to emphasize different aspects of any given strategy. But the question now is whether there is any strategy at all. Severely understaffed in senior security posts, where expertise is usually found, and relying instead on officials with little governing experience, like Mr. Trump, this administration has struggled to articulate a coherent policy toward the North. Not just ordinary Americans, but America’s allies, have had a hard time understanding where this administration is headed. One can only assume that the North Koreans, isolated from much of the world, are no less confused, greatly raising the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.

None of this is to excuse North Korea, whose 21…

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