With one tweet, President Donald Trump seemed to undercut Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior military leaders from the Pentagon to the Pacific who for months have said diplomacy, not military strikes, were the preferred way to stop North Korea’s nuclear missile advances.
After a United Nations Security Council vote on Tuesday unanimously condemned the reclusive regime for launching a missile over Japan, Trump underlined his disdain for the diplomatic approach.
“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” said the president in a Wednesday morning tweet.
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
Hours later, Mattis was asked about that tweet during a Pentagon appearance with his South Korean counterpart. “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” the secretary responded, according to Military Times’ Tara Copp.
If Trump thinks talk is not the answer, what is? The president did not call for direct military action, but his tweet comes one day after this White House statement, “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior. Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”
All options are always on the table, as everyone knows. By now, that line should have no bearing on an actual policy decision. But the president once again has put the world on edge.
Indeed, talking is exactly the right option, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and other senior uniformed leaders. The U.S. military’s top generals have been extraordinarily cautious about what they say about their commander in chief’s tweets, statements, policies, and intentions, including the policy option of using military force of any kind to start or prevent conflict. But on North Korea, they have offered a united message.
In Asia earlier this month, Dunford said, “The United States military’s priority is to support our government’s efforts to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic and economic pressure,” as quoted by the New York Times.
Last month, America’s top Pacific commander, Adm. Harry Harris, told a Washington audience that diplomacy was the “preferred” option. “I also firmly believe that every nation who considers itself to be a responsible contributor to international security must work diplomatically and economically to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, and not to his knees.”
Both officers said they were preparing the military for a full range of “options” should diplomacy fail. But nobody in the administration has defined where that red line is, short of a missile launched directly toward the United States or its allies. Mattis has said the U.S. would shoot down any North Korean missile tracking to hit U.S. soil — including territories like Guam — but that it was up to the president to decide how to respond to a missile heading toward the open sea. On Tuesday, North Korea launched a medium-range ballistic missile directly over Japan. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, the military’s missile-tracking command based at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., said the missile was never a threat to the United States. Neither the U.S. or Japan attempted to shoot it down. (For more on why, read this.)
Instead, the Trump administration again turned to the United Nations, which the president has publicly bashed as ineffective and outdated, but which the U.S. relies on to build an international consensus against Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program. The Security Council, including China and Russia, unanimously condemned the test launch, but also called on global leaders to avoid inflammatory rhetoric. Chinese and Russian diplomats called on the U.S. to stop conducting military exercises with South Korea, which has been put forth as the barrier to talks with Pyongyang. The United States has refused.
“It is time for the North Korean regime to recognize the danger they are putting themselves in,” said U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, as quoted by the Associated Press. “The United States will not allow their lawlessness to continue, and the rest of the world is with us.”