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The past 48 hours in Trump's bizarre, ever-changing North Korea policy, explained

President Trump speaks at the Department of Veterans Affairs (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

"There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview published on Friday morning. “Absolutely.”

It was a frightening capstone to the past two days in Trumpland, which have been dominated by North Korea policy. But happily, there’s less to it than meets the eye: The Trump administration is currently giving every indication that it doesn’t want to use force against North Korea.

The issue, though, is that we have no clue what it actually does want to do.

On Wednesday, nearly the entire Senate took a bus trip to the White House to be briefed on North Korea policy. In the briefing, top Trump officials told senators that they were planning to use economic sanctions and diplomatic outreach to allies to bring North Korea to heel. But they were apparently incapable of being more specific than that, infuriating many of the senators who attended. One anonymous Democrat described the reaction to Trump’s comments at the briefing as “80 sets of invisible eyes rolling.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NPR that the US was open to direct negotiations with North Korea — reversing the “no negotiations” stance that he himself had taken a month ago. Then on Friday came Trump’s ominous Reuters interview, which also included a new demand that South Korea pay for the THAAD missile defense system — “the most incredible equipment you've ever seen” — that the US was currently installing there.

And then, late on Friday, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test. It’s not yet clear how the Trump team will respond.

So when you put that all together, what do you have? What does the Trump administration’s past two days of frenetic activity on North Korea tell us about its actual policy?

“Beats the fuck out of me,” says Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

This muddle, according to Pollack and other North Korea experts I spoke to, obscures a fundamental lack of new policy ideas. As far as we can tell, the Trump administration is still pursuing the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea — while trashing it publicly and making aggressive-sounding noises about confronting Pyongyang. Cut through the rough of the past few days, and that one fact shines through like a diamond.

Whether this mixture is sustainable — whether the blustery rhetoric will undermine the seemingly measured policy — is very far from clear.

“This is mostly still par for the course: lots of rhetorical bluster from the US, but really we are not going to start a war,” David Kang, director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute, tells me.

What follows, then, is a brief rundown of the key events that have taken place in the past 48 hours — and what they mean for America’s stance on one of the world’s most important national security challenges.

Wednesday: the big, important Senate meeting that wasn’t

The most anticipated North Korea event of the week was the big Senate briefing, announced back on Monday. A classified briefing of this kind, where the entire Senate is invited to the White House, is unprecedented — which initially led observers to think that the White House was preparing a major announcement about a new policy.

That is ... not what happened. According to senators who attended the briefing, it was a whole lot of nothing.

Chris Murphy, a Democrat who’s made foreign policy a major priority in his career, told CNN there was “no revelation” about North Korea policy in the briefing. An anonymous Republican said the briefing failed to clarify even the most basic questions (like how the administration plans to deal with North Korea’s work on missiles that could hit the US):

Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he wasn’t sure if the meeting was worth his time:

A joint statement from Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Director of National Dan Coats released shortly after the briefing explains the senators’ annoyed reactions entirely.

The policy described in the statement — “tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners” until North Korea is willing to negotiate away its nuclear program — is essentially identical to the Obama administration’s policy, which it called “strategic patience.” Since the Trump team reportedly was not much more specific than that, the senators felt like their time was wasted.

“The Senate briefing [shows that] the US is pursuing strategic patience, but not calling it that,” Kang explains.

This is the key insight here: Though the administration is going to great lengths to make it look like it’s taking dramatic action on North Korea, like packing nearly the entire Senate into a bus and bringing them to the White House, the truth is there’s not very much substance to back it up.

Thursday: Secretary Tillerson’s incredible about-face

Rex Tillerson Chairs UN Security Council Meeting On Nonproliferation Of North Korea (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Secretary Tillerson has long sounded like one of the administration’s toughest North Korea hardliners. In mid-March, he said that the US would only negotiate with North Korea after the country gave up its nuclear weapons — and said military action against Pyongyang was “an option.” In an April statement, he said that “the United States has spoken enough about North Korea” and was ready to act, alone if necessary.

All of this appeared to change on Thursday, when Tillerson sat down for a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. In the interview, Tillerson endorsed “direct” negotiations with North Korea, with the aim of getting them to give up their nuclear weapons. Denuclearization was no longer a precondition of talks, it seemed; it was now their endgame.

“A denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” Tillerson told Inskeep, “is our only goal.”

Tillerson then once again rejected the Obama administration’s policy — repeating that “the era of strategic patience is over” — while seeming to endorse it when describing his team’s policy:

This is an approach that is to put pressure on them through implementation of all the sanctions, as well as other diplomatic pressures, and calling on others to cause them to change their view of what will really allow them to achieve the security that they say they seek.

The effect of this is to make America’s overall plan for North Korea hopelessly unclear. Saying you’re rejecting a policy while simultaneously embracing the exact same policy has the effect of confusing allies and opponents alike.

“Whether it’s in DC, or Seoul, or Tokyo, or Beijing, or Pyongyang — no one knows who speaks for the administration or what the message is,” said Pollack.

Late Thursday night: President Trump said what?

To add even more confusion, Reuters published a lengthy interview late Thursday night in which President Trump ominously warned that “major, major conflict” with North Korea was entirely possible.

In fairness to the president, if the US were to go to war with North Korea, it really would be devastating. As Alex Ward noted at Vox, the North is pointing thousands of artillery pieces at the South Korean city of Seoul; one war game estimated that North Korea could kill 100,000 people in the city within the first few days of fighting.

On the other hand, this is the kind of thing the president personally shouldn’t be casually speculating about. When the president says “there is a chance” of a war between the US and North Korea, it’s hard for most people to know whether he’s saying there’s a chance America is going to start one soon. That is a scary thing for American and South Korean citizens to hear — and who knows how it’ll be seen in Pyongyang (they released a lovely propaganda video on Thursday where they nuke Washington, DC, which you can watch below):

Some of Trump’s other comments in the Reuters interview were potentially even more troubling. He laid out a brand new demand — that South Korea pay for the THAAD missile defense system that the US is currently deploying there — in typically blunt terms:

On the THAAD system, it's about a billion dollars. I said, “Why are we paying? Why are we paying a billion dollars? We're protecting. Why are we paying a billion dollars?” So I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid. Nobody's going to do that. Why are we paying a billion dollars? It's a billion dollar system. It's phenomenal. It's the most incredible equipment you've ever seen — shoots missiles right out of the sky. And it protects them and I want to protect them. We're going to protect them. But they should pay for that, and they understand that.

He also blasted the 2012 US free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, calling it “unacceptable ... a horrible deal made by Hillary.” (The bulk of the text was actually negotiated in 2007 by the George W. Bush administration.) He then promised to alter it, saying “we're going to renegotiate that deal, or terminate it."

Who knows if these comments represent actual administration policy, given its history of shifting on Korea policy. But the comments come at a critical time: South Korea is holding a presidential election on May 9. The candidate leading the polls, left-winger Moon Jae In, has promised to “review” the terms of the THAAD deal with the US and plans, in general, to pursue a closer relationship with the North. This isn’t the kind of political climate in which Trump’s bluster will be well received.

“Why he would go out of his way to antagonize a major US ally, especially 10 days before a critical presidential election in which THAAD and the FTA are critical issues, strikes me as unhelpful to say the least,” Kang tells me.

Put all of this together and you get a perfect encapsulation of experts’ broader worries about Trump and North Korea.

While substantive policies may remain the same as Obama’s, in that Trump is deploying THAAD and not declaring war on North Korea, the mere fact that he’s threatened to do some wild stuff changes the way America is perceived. And in foreign policy, perception can determine reality: There’s a real risk, every time someone in the administration mouths off about Korea, that they end up complicating America’s strategic position on the peninsula without meaning to.

"It is important for the administration to continue implementing steps the Obama administration had underway,” Laura Rosenberger, the National Security Council’s director for China and Korea from 2012 to 2013, told me earlier this week. "What particularly worries me is the blustery rhetoric we are seeing from administration officials, which seem to be completely divorced from any practical steps or strategy.”

Watch: The North Korean nuclear threat, explained