After North Korea focused day, administration policy remains opaque

WASHINGTON – After weeks of vocal rhetoric on North Korea, the Trump administration on Wednesday seemed to take a step back, emphasizing economic sanctions and diplomacy over direct military action.

The day started with Adm. Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, testifying in front of the House Armed Services Committee. In his written testimony, Harris — viewed by many observers as a hawk on North Korea and China — said that the U.S. should act appropriately “in order to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not his knees.”

That stance seemed at odds with previous statements from inside the Pentagon and the White House earlier this month — such as Vice President Mike Pence declaring the “era of strategic patience is over” — which had led to widespread discussion in the media and think tank world that the U.S. could be preparing to strike North Korea.

Following Harris’ testimony, President Trump hosted a much-ballyhooed meeting of the entire Senate, with the 100 members bussed from the Hill to the White House for a briefing on the North Korea situation from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Mattis, Tillerson and Coats issued a joint statement following the meeting, emphasizing not the need for immediate military action, but rather saying the U.S. is “engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on [North Korea] in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue.”

“The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners,” the statement read.

Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes today’s statements are “closer” to where the administration’s policy for North Korea will end up.

However, she sees that less as a “walking back” of previous statements, and more a reflection of a lack of clarity about the Trump administration’s strategy in the region.

“The mixed messaging coming from the administration thus far has led to unnecessary and excessive anxiety, especially among our allies and partners,” Town said. “So hopefully we will now start to see some more reasonable thinking and consistent messaging going forward.” 

James Walsh, senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, agreed that the “mixed signals” from the administration are confusing for both allies and the North Korean government.

“Substituting strategic haste for strategic patience is not progress. The administration settled on a policy of enhanced pressure and engagement, and it should stick to that, not freelance,” Walsh added. “I’m old school. You shouldn’t wave a gun around unless you are prepared to use it.”

Senators speaking to press after the meeting did not seem enthused by what they heard, with at least one
GOP senator telling the press the administration could not articulate a clear policy for dealing with the situation.  

One part of the Trump plan that may be working in the short term to downplay tensions on the peninsula: leaning on China, North Korea’s longtime benefactor, to exert pressure on Pyongyang.

Trump has been vocal that China needs to be doing more to curb North Korean activities, and Chinese President Xi Jinping may be willing to do just that. Xi has reportedly threatened to cut the flow of oil to North Korea if it continues to test its weaponry.

“It seems to me that the Chinese threat to cut oil supplies is having an impact, and North Korea has shown some restraint these last few weeks, choosing not to test either on Kim il-Sung’s birthday or this week when it was their Armed Forces Day,” Walsh noted. “The question going forward is whether Trump, having gotten Xi to act, will now reciprocate and do something that the Chinese want: a return to the six party talks and/or slow playing THAAD. It would appear that the US is not doing the latter.”

The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, of Maryland, told reporters before the briefing that the U.S. must use a carrot-and-stick approach, in close cooperation with China

“What we’re trying to do is isolate them to the point where they have to come and negotiate. And yes, sanctions make clear if they want economic progress, they have to make changes in their nuclear program,” Cardin said. 

“Can you tighten that more? Absolutely, and China is key to that, on the energy issues. But China can also turn on economic help. The international community can turn on the plus side of the economy if there’s progress made with inspectors on the ground, freezes, there has to be some give for that.”

Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.

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