With the situation in North Korea heating up, Trump administration officials have said they’re ready to try new tactics to rein in the country’s nuclear program. “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared last month.
Now the White House has deployed a strategy that no former administration has attempted: having the president and the secretary of State play “good cop, bad cop” with North Korea.
First the Trump administration said on Thursday that it wants to focus a “burst” of economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. Their aim is to convince Kim Jong-un to abandon his pursuit of a nuclear weapon within a matter of months.
You know if you listen to the North Koreans, their reason for having nuclear weapons is they believe it is their only pathway to secure the ongoing existence of their regime. Well we hope to convince them is that: you do not need these weapons to secure the exist of your of your regime … We do not seek regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean peninsula and again that is entirely consistent with the objectives of others in the region as well.
Tillerson went on to reject the idea that Kim Jong-un is crazy, saying: “He may be ruthless. He may be a murderer. He may be someone who in many respects we would say by our standards is irrational. But he is not insane.”
As for the consequences if North Korea refuses to comply, Tillerson said China may impose sanctions. “They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test,” Tillerson explained.
All in all, Tillerson’s pitch seemed very reasonable, especially considering that North Korea just put out a video featuring a simulated explosion of the U.S. Capitol.
Then President Trump weighed in.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters during an interview in the Oval Office.
He added that any move against South Korea would have dire consequences. “Is [Kim Jong-un] willing to destroy his country and is he willing to destroy millions and million of lives and people?” Trump asked.
The president did reiterate that he has respect for North Korea’s dictator:
“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.
“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.
Trump went on to say Chinese President Xi Jinping is “a very good man,” who’s “trying very hard” to resolve the problem with North Korea. “He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to see it.”
Of course, Trump doesn’t want to see those things either. “We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said.
Clearly this is all an elaborate strategy to convince Kim Jong-un that talking to Tillerson is his best option. Surely the president of the United States wouldn’t just casually float the idea of a “major, major conflict” with a potential nuclear power.