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Trump could use a coherent foreign policy towards North Korea

There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to Trump's approach. He seems to just wander in different directions, without any sense of where he wants to go.
Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with business leaders in the State Department Library on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

In April, Vice President Mike Pence visited several Asia-Pacific countries, and spent some time at the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea. Pence wasn't originally scheduled to go outside a South Korean building at the DMZ, but the Republican said he wanted to make a point

"I thought it was important that we went outside," Pence said. "I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face."

It's never been altogether clear what that was supposed to mean, but whatever the intended message, it appears the vice president's steely gaze didn't affect North Korea's direction.

North Korea fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, military officials said, a significant step forward in Pyongyang's weapons program and an escalation of a perilous nuclear standoff with the United States. [...]The ICBM, which is believed to be "two-stage," officials said, would have a range of at least 3,500 miles and thus be able to reach Alaska.

In January, Donald Trump declared via Twitter, "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!" This hasn't held up especially well.

What's more, even before he became a presidential candidate, Trump used to see North Korean missile launches as evidence of American weakness. In late 2012, for example, he tweeted, "We can't even stop the Norks from blasting a missile.... It is really sad." This hasn't held up well, either.

Misplaced missives aside, part of the problem is that the president doesn't seem to have an actual policy towards North Korea.

Trump's original plan was to ask China to fix the problem. He later conceded that he was confused about the nature of the relationship between the two countries, and his administration's approach "has not worked out."

In May, Trump seemed to suggest Russia should help. Two days ago, he hinted that South Korea and Japan could lend a hand.

All the while, Trump has offered public praise for Kim Jong Un and expressed a willingness to engage in direct talks with the North Korean dictator. "If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it," Trump said in May.

This morning, Trump meandering posture was back to complaining about China again.

There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to any of this. The president seems to just wander in different directions, without any sense of where he wants to go.

Laura Rosenberger, a veteran of the Obama administration's State Department and National Security Council, had an interesting Twitter thread the other day, highlighting a core problem with Trump's current posturing: "When I worked [on U.S. policy towards North Korea], we spent hours poring over North Korean statements to understand their thinking. They absolutely do the same with us. And that means they may well read much more into Trump's tweets than he intended. Problem is, Trump has no idea what his intentions are, and is sending signals without anything to back them.... Picking a Twitter fight with a nuclear-armed dictator is not wise -- this is not reality TV anymore."

* Postscript: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley complained yesterday that North Korea's missile launch meant she had to attend a series of meetings yesterday, which meant she couldn't enjoy the 4th of July. That's an odd way for a prominent official to talk about her public responsibilities, and it led to questions as to why her boss spent much of the day golfing.

Indeed, it brought to mind another Trump tweet that hasn't held up well, this one from 2014: "Can you believe that with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf."