The North Korea crisis is magnifying all of President Trump’s most dangerous instincts and personality traits.
Trump improvised his comments on Tuesday when he said that North Korea would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it didn’t stop threatening the US — stunning many of his own advisers. His administration is sending conflicting signals on their assessments of how dangerous the situation is. The State Department is understaffed and unequipped to communicate with vital Asian allies on the standoff. And Trump’s impatience with coaxing China to apply more pressure to North Korea could end up alienating the US’s most powerful source of leverage over the regime.
While no US president has been successful at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Trump is uniquely unsuited to it.
Defense strategists often refer to North Korea as “the land of no good options.” Because of its nuclear capabilities and its vast array of artillery, any US military action against North Korea could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in South Korea and Japan. The North has proven resilient to economic sanctions, in part because its neighbor China has a strategic interest in ensuring the regime doesn’t collapse. While the global community is bent on stopping North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program from advancing, he considers it essential to the survival of his regime.
President Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be the most pressing challenge he would face upon taking the White House. But Trump’s habit of improvisation, disinterest in organized messaging, and refusal to hire key diplomatic staff is hobbling his ability to tackle the issue in a remotely effective way. And so it is the president’s whims, not any kind of calculated, expert-backed strategy, that’s guiding us through one of the most complex security challenges the world faces today.
The dangers of veering from the script on North Korea
Trump enjoys thinking and speaking on the fly. His campaign rallies often resembled a standup comedy tour, where he’d freely riff on the latest news and joke around with the crowd, reveling in his signature stream-of-consciousness style of rhetoric.
Since becoming president, he’s worked off a script more often, but still freely veers off it. His tweets, frequently featuring typos and grammatical errors, are a spontaneous expression of his thoughts on the day. He’s ad-libbed during major policy speeches on sensitive topics including his views on Islam and US support for NATO.
These acts of improvisation are not without consequence, but they’re often reversible or can be walked back by other staff. In the case of North Korea, there’s less margin for error: The wrong kind of statement could spark the beginning of a war.
Take Trump’s "fire and fury" comments from Tuesday. That’s the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric we’re used to hearing from North Korea — not a sitting US president. Rather than respond with careful, measured comments, as previous US presidents have in similar situations, Trump chose to respond with emotionally charged language that ended up escalating an already fraught situation.
North Korea didn’t flinch. Within a day, Pyongyang declared Trump “bereft of reason” and announced detailed plans for firing four ballistic missiles that would fly over Japan and land between 19 and 25 miles off the shore of the US territory of Guam.
North Korea state media framed it as a direct attempt to call Trump’s bluff, stating that he had “let out a load of nonsense about 'fire and fury'" and accusing him of "failing to grasp the on-going grave situation."
Trump refused to soften his rhetoric during a subsequent media appearance on Thursday, when he told reporters that perhaps his earlier statement “wasn’t tough enough.”
Ad-libbing on North Korea makes the US look weaker
Trump sincerely believes it’s acceptable to improvise in these kinds of delicate diplomatic situations. But it’s not. There’s a reason why US officials carefully think through every last syllable of their public statements: It’s to make sure that their statements accurately convey — to both allies and adversaries — the administration’s position in a way that won’t be misunderstood.
It’s not that Trump shouldn’t have threatened North Korea. It’s that because he just improvised it, it’s unclear whether that threat was an accurate reflection of the administration’s position toward North Korea — that is, if you threaten us again, we will attack you — or if it was just tough talk.
Is Trump really setting a red line for North Korea that his administration is prepared to back up with actual force? Or is it just empty bravado? How credible is this threat?
Furthermore, the language he used was so vague that even if the tough talk were perceived as an accurate reflection of the US position, it would be unclear what exactly it meant.
The White House’s perennial inability to coordinate messaging among its officials and spokespeople only exacerbated this confusion.
The day after Trump issued what seemed like a tough new policy stance toward North Korean provocation, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters, “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.” In other words, ignore the president’s comments; we’re not actually about to go to war.
“Americans should sleep well at night,” he added.
Then Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke up, issuing a statement that seemed far closer to Trump’s aggressive message than Tillerson’s words of calm, calling for North Korea to "cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people."
On Thursday, the mixed messaging grew even more complicated. White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said during a BBC radio appearance that Tillerson was not actually speaking for the White House, and that Trump’s threats should be taken seriously.
“You should listen to the president,” Gorka said. “The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.”
If the administration itself can’t even figure out what its actual policy is, how is North Korea’s leadership going to do so? How are US allies South Korea and Japan — the two countries most likely to be struck first if North Korea decides to attack — supposed to know what is happening?
“The mixed messages our allies and partners are hearing leave them with no clear sense of our policy,” says Laura Rosenberger, who served as National Security Council director for Korea and China under the Obama administration. “And it is not clear that these statements are in fact attached to any coordinated policy.”
And when it comes to nuclear-armed countries threatening each other, this kind of confusion can potentially have dire consequences.
“The uncoordinated rhetoric we are seeing from this administration is increasing the risk of miscalculation on an issue where we have no room for error,” explains Rosenberger.
Trump doesn’t have the team he needs to get the job done
The Trump administration’s problem goes beyond messaging — the emptiness of his government is making things worse.
Trump has proudly said that in order to make the government as lean and efficient as possible, he wouldn’t be hiring for all the openings available in his administration. Tillerson has also made this his philosophy for staffing the State Department.
Even when there isn’t an urgent need for developing and executing policy, understaffed parts of the government end up overwhelmed with work, communication slows, and policy can’t be carried out as quickly or as competently as it would otherwise. But in times of crisis, like an escalating conflict with a nuclear-armed enemy, understaffing can be dangerous.
“This is a situation in which you want smart, levelheaded people in the top Korea-related posts in the US government,” my colleague Zack Beauchamp explains. “You want leading subject matter experts running Asia policy in the Departments of State and Defense, and someone who knows the South Korean government well serving as ambassador in Seoul.”
“Yet in the Trump administration, those positions remain vacant,” he notes. “In fact, no one has even been nominated to these positions.”
A functioning State Department fully staffed with competent professionals and experts would be better able to help mitigate the negative effects of Trump’s more erratic statements. They could try to synthesize his whims into a coherent policy, and help clarify the confusion of the US’s allies. Instead, the US is left with a dysfunctional bureaucracy that is unable to adapt to the president’s unpredictable style or to help clean up after he makes a mess.