IN seeming contradiction to his top Cabinet officials, US President Donald Trump said Wednesday that “talking is not the answer” when it comes to reining in North Korea and its expanding weapons programme.
This blanket statement was quickly contradicted, however, by Defence Secretary James Mattis who minutes later told reporters: “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”
Trump, who just last week said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “starting to respect” the United States, made his comments on Twitter:
“The US has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” Trump wrote. “Talking is not the answer!”
The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2017
Trump’s comments come a day after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over Japan that drew international condemnation and reignited the tough rhetoric toward reclusive, nuclear-armed and increasingly isolated North Korea.
State-run news agency claimed the launch was “the first step of the military operation of the KPA (Korean People’s Army) in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam,” reasserting threats made earlier in the month to strike the US territory, home to a large US military base.
When asked by reporters just hours after Trump’s tweet if the US was out of diplomatic solutions with North Korea amid the rising tensions, Mattis replied: “No.”
“We are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said before a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon. “We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations and our interests.”
Such sharply conflicting statements have become a norm for the Trump administration, but it is unclear how they are being read by the regime in Pyongyang and US allies in the region.
In early August, the president spoke of “fire and fury” if North Korea so much as threatened the US – which it promptly did.
As Trump was threatening the regime, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was continuing a message of “peaceful pressure” aimed at systematically cutting off Pyongyang’s sources of financial and diplomatic support.
Just days after Trump’s threat to the North, both Mattis and Tillerson wrote a Wall Street Journal commentary assuring Pyongyang “the US has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea.”
Sec. of Defense Mattis and Sec. of State Tillerson in the Wall Street Journal: “We’re Holding Pyongyang to Account” https://t.co/yrCjp3Lic7
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 14, 2017
While some experts hint that the conflicting messages coming from the White House may be part of US strategy to increase pressure on North Korea, one former US official told CNN the administration’s signals are too incoherent for that to be likely.
“The idea that this is part of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy seems to be an attempt to excuse the reality that the Trump administration is in chaos when it comes to North Korea,” said Abraham Denmark, a former assistant secretary of defense for East Asia.
“If the President has made up his mind against talks with North Korea, that should be the end of the conversation,” Denmark said. “This dramatically undercuts the State Department – any offer of talks to North Korea has zero credibility if the president is not on board.”
The UN Security Council on Tuesday condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch as “outrageous,” and demanded Pyongyang halt its weapons programme but the US-drafted statement did not threaten new sanctions.
In response to the launch, the US military conducted a “complex missile defense flight test” off Hawaii early on Wednesday, resulting in the intercept of a medium-range ballistic missile target, according to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.
Additional reporting by Reuters