Trump’s Amateur Hour on North Korea

Trump is weakening the United States’ ability to deal with the threat.

By for The Diplomat

U.S. President Donald Trump is playing a game of nuclear-armed chicken with North Korea. Whatever happens, Trump has weakened America’s ability to address the North Korean threat.

North Korea is one of the most dangerous foreign policy challenges facing the United States, and the threat is growing. But Trump’s opening gambit is only making things worse. The hyperbolic and assertive rhetoric on North Korea coming out of the Trump administration over the last month is an unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous approach that will result in one of two outcomes: war, or a new U.S. administration with severely damaged credibility to deal with the very real threat on the Korean peninsula.

As president, Trump’s words carry more meaning than those of any other person on earth, and whether he means what he says or not, foreign leaders read his comments closely. On North Korea, Trump’s casual disregard for the power of his rhetoric is quickly running up against the reality that war and peace can hinge on his tweets.

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Before the much-anticipated April 15 display of North Korea’s military might and since, the Trump administration has made a series of dizzying and potentially destabilizing comments seemingly indicating an intention to bring events with North Korea to a head. Trump said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will”; Vice President Mike Pence, while in Asia, said that “the era of strategic patience is over”; and in response to a North Korean missile test in early April, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ominously said, “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea.”

These comments came amidst erroneous statements by the president and U.S. officials that the United States was sending the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to Northeast Asia and even reports that the Trump administration was prepared to launch preemptive strikes if it believed that North Korea was going to test a nuclear weapon. The continued heated rhetoric from both sides is keeping tensions high on the peninsula.

Trump’s assertive rhetoric – including hints at possible unilateral U.S. military action – is dangerous even if it’s just an attempt at scaring North Korea to come to the table. While some claim it’s necessary to scare North Korea into changing its behavior, it’s much more likely that Trump’s behavior is raising the risk of a conflict. If Trump actually strikes, it likely starts a war that is impossible to contain; if it’s merely bluster aimed at scaring China and North Korea, North Korea may not read it that way and could lash out instead.

Any possible limited military strike would carry significant risks for a broader conflict that would result in the devastation of Seoul (including thousands of Americans), possible…

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