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Despite the scary headlines, Trump’s North Korea policy isn’t that different from Obama’s

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments on North Korea sounded tough, but experts aren’t convinced.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, right, during a press conference in Seoul on Friday, March 17, 2017.
(Jung Yeon-Je/Pool Photo via AP)

Americans woke to scary headlines Friday morning that the Trump administration had just announced a dramatic shift in US policy toward North Korea, abandoning diplomacy and threatening that preemptive military action against the reclusive and nuclear-armed regime was “an option.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is in South Korea as part of his first diplomatic tour of the region, declared that “the policy of strategic patience has ended” and that the administration is “exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures.”

Just last week, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles toward Japan and boasted they were a dry run for attacking American troops there. When asked if the US would consider taking military action against North Korea, Tillerson said, “Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict. We are quite clear on that in our communications.”

“But obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens South Korean forces or our own forces, then that will be met with an appropriate response,” Tillerson added. “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.”

That certainly sounds pretty alarming. And indeed, some on Capitol Hill were clearly unnerved by the administration’s belligerent talk of preemptive military action against an autocratic nation ruled by a mercurial, thin-skinned, and unpredictable leader.

Sen. Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the East Asia Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement warning that “Secretary Tillerson’s suggestion of using preemptive military force against North Korea increases the risk of inadvertent nuclear and conventional war on the Korean Peninsula.”

“If Kim Jong Un believes his nuclear weapons are under threat of military attack, he will feel pressure to use them or lose them,” Markey said, referring to the North Korean leader. “Rather than making provocative threats and refusing to negotiate, the Trump administration should engage in coercive diplomacy aimed at halting and eventually rolling back North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.”

But some experts have thrown cold water on the notion that the Trump administration was actually pursuing a new, more belligerent stance toward North Korea. Tough talk aside, it looks — at least for the moment — like more of the same.

Trump isn’t the first president to talk tough about North Korea

Abraham Denmark, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under the Obama administration, tweeted, “Despite the rhetoric, it's still unclear to me that the Trump administration's approach to [North Korea] is anything new.”

“It seems like the Trump policy will be many of the same things that Obama did, but with greater vigor,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told the BBC.

It’s still early, of course, and Trump’s approach could very well become more aggressive once his administration finally gets its footing. But when you look at the evidence of what they’ve actually done so far — and not just the rhetoric — it seems Trump is in many ways continuing to approach the North Korea situation along the same lines as his predecessor did.

For instance, last week — on the same day North Korea launched its ballistic missiles — the United States military announced that it had officially begun the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea.

THAAD, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is designed to detect and then intercept incoming ballistic missiles in their “terminal” phase — that is, when they’re on the way down, not on the way up. It’s a system that’s already deployed in Guam on an “expeditionary” basis, and is now being deployed in South Korea to protect against any incoming missiles from the North.

The deployment of the THAAD system to South Korea had been in the works for months now, going back to the Obama administration. And despite it being a highly controversial move that has angered China and even some in South Korea, Trump clearly agreed with his predecessor that deploying THAAD was an important part of the strategy to protect the close US ally from any threat from North Korea.

Trump is also continuing the Obama administration’s strategy of pressuring China to be more aggressive in trying to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. On Friday morning, the president tweeted:

As Klingner pointed out, “there are only really so many options with North Korea,” and he noted that “a lot of it is which lane of the road you put greater emphasis on.”

For now, it’s clear that the Trump administration, true to form, plans to put its emphasis on tough talk over diplomatic niceties. It remains to be seen whether that approach will convince North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, himself no stranger to tough talk, that maybe it’s time to rethink his strategy just a bit.

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