The Washington Post reported last week that North Korean government officials “have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un’s regime.” In this case, it’s hard to blame North Koreans for being confused.
On the one hand, the American president has praised Kim Jong-un’s intelligence and said he’d be “honored” to meet the dictator. On the other hand, Trump has also threatened North Korea in unusually bellicose terms, warning that the United States is “locked and loaded” to rain “fire and fury” on the adversary.
The erratic swings and contradictions grew more pronounced over the weekend.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made headlines on Saturday, announcing that there are “lines of communication” between Pyongyang and Washington, D.C., explained that the United State is “not in a dark situation” with North Korea. A State Department spokesperson added soon after, “U.S. diplomats have several open channels in which we can communicate with officials within the North Korean regime.”
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done! Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”
We know, of course, that the United States hasn’t been “nice” to Kim Jong-un for 25 years for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that he’s only 33. Trump is probably thinking of a different North Korean dictator. (He really should try to keep up on basic details, such as the fact that Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il are not the same person.)
But even putting that aside, there are basically three angles to this story.
First, there’s no reason to believe Trump administration officials will have any credibility with North Korea so long as Trump himself is undercutting his own team’s efforts. Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called this “life-or-death presidential malpractice,” adding, “How could any other country take seriously the assurance that America seeks a peaceful solution?”
Indeed, cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the president. If Trump believes the process is a “waste of time,” he has the option of simply ordering the State Department not to pursue this diplomatic opportunity.
Second, there’s also no reason to believe this will work in the president’s favor. His ostensible goal is to contain North Korea and persuade it to forfeit its nuclear program. One need not be an expert on international diplomacy to realize juvenile name-calling and threats of violence will not convince Kim Jong-un to cater to White House demands.
And third, for the love of all that is good in the world, Rex Tillerson’s resignation should be a foregone conclusion at this point. He and the president have been on wildly different pages over and over and over again, to the point that there’s no reason anyone on the planet should believe the Secretary of State can speak with authority on what U.S. foreign policy entails.
Trump is humiliating Tillerson on a global scale. The only way he can end this fiasco is to walk away.
Postscript: Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson who used to work at Fox News, insisted yesterday that North Korea “will not obtain a nuclear capability.” At the risk of sounding picky, North Korea already has a nuclear capability – as the spokesperson for the State Department should probably know.