The Memo: Could Trump’s hard line work on North Korea?

The Memo: Could Trump’s hard line work on North Korea?
© Getty

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE’s allies are robustly defending his rhetoric on North Korea, despite the criticism his words have drawn from other quarters.

The administration’s view is that Trump’s hard line had paid dividends even before he threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury” on Tuesday. Supporters argue it may continue to do so, in part by ratcheting up pressure on China to rein in its ally.

The Trump camp highlights last weekend’s unanimous vote by the United Nations Security Council, in which China and Russia joined the United States and others in imposing the most arduous sanctions yet on North Korea. 

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyThe truth behind Biden's 'you ain't black' gaffe A glimpse of our post-pandemic politics The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Will new therapy drug be a COVID-19 game changer? MORE, described those sanctions as “a gut punch to North Korea” during a Fox News interview on Monday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pyongyang intensified the war of words on Wednesday, however. According to The Associated Press, the North Korean military called Trump's threat a "load of nonsense" and said that "only absolute force" would work on Trump. 

But Walid Phares, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, argued that “what most impresses the North Korean regime politically is a united U.N. Security Council position and joint actions by the international community to isolate Pyongyang. The last [U.N.] resolution … against North Korea is the kind of development that would push the dictatorship to slow down its activities.”

Phares added that “a second deterrent is when China takes measures from its side, because it signals that the only real lifeline for North Korea's economy could be cut.”

On Wednesday, amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a North Korean threat against Guam, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDeadline for Kansas Senate race passes without Pompeo filing Democrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo The Memo: Fauci at odds with Trump on virus MORE offered a solid endorsement of Trump’s approach.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson told reporters.

Tillerson described the administration’s overall strategy as a "pressure campaign,” a phrase that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert repeated during a media briefing later in the day.

The basic thrust of that campaign, in the minds of Team Trump, is to pressure China by raising the specter of instability in the region unless North Korea curbs its nuclear program. The prospect of such instability would concern China because it would call its No. 1 goal — maintaining its economic expansion — into question.

Even some Republicans who have at times been critical of Trump seemed to endorse that approach.

“China should have two options,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhat you need to know about FBI official Dana Boente's retirement Rosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US MORE (R-S.C.) told "CBS This Morning” on Wednesday. “Deal with the nut job in your backyard or realize there will be a war in your backyard.”

Independent experts who are broadly sympathetic to Trump’s approach argue that his rhetoric provides an important measure of clarity — even as critics worry that it is raising the temperature to a dangerous level.

“No matter who you are, you understand the president means business in North Korea,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank established by former President Richard Nixon. “The dictator in Pyongyang knows he means business as well. There is no mistaking what he is talking about here.”

Others noted that the more modulated approaches favored by other recent presidents have not proven successful.

Then-President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP How Obama just endorsed Trump Trump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be MORE in 1994 concluded a deal that pledged $4 billion in energy aid to North Korea in return for a promise to slow and eventually dismantle its nuclear program. During President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOn The Trail: Trump didn't create these crises, but he's making them worse Canada's Trudeau responds to Trump: Russia not welcome in G-7 George Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP MORE’s two terms in the White House, he adopted an approach known as “strategic patience.”

Despite these efforts, and others by former President George W. Bush’s administration, Pyongyang has carried out five nuclear tests since 2006. Last month alone, it twice tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

Earlier this week, a leaked U.S. intelligence assessment suggested that North Korea had achieved “miniaturization” — the process by which nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by ICBMs are made.

“The professional military believe we’re at a turning point,” conservative broadcaster Hugh Hewitt said, citing recent remarks by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Army chief of staff Mark Milley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. 

McMaster told Hewitt on his MSNBC show on Saturday that a situation in which North Korea could menace the United States with a nuclear weapon was “intolerable from the president’s perspective.”

Trump, Hewitt told The Hill, “used very blunt and provocative language, which is very different from the language used by President Obama, Bush or Clinton. But their language didn’t accomplish anything.”

There are plenty of people who fear that Trump’s language could accomplish all the wrong things, however.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive things to watch in Tuesday's primaries Nina Turner responds to Cornel West's remarks about George Floyd COVID-19 pandemic will shrink economy by trillion in next decade: CBO MORE (I-Vt.) described the president’s remarks as “bombastic” on Wednesday, the same word that Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGraham announces hearing on police use of force after George Floyd killing Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter MORE (D-Calif.) used the previous day. 

Republican Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMontana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight How Obama just endorsed Trump Former Texas Rep. Sam Johnson dies at 89 MORE (Ariz.) told a radio station in Arizona Tuesday that Trump appeared to be making threats that he could not follow through on and was increasing the chances of a “serious confrontation” by doing so.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez went further Wednesday, attacking Trump for “recklessly live-tweeting threats of nuclear war from his private golf course.”

Others took a more nuanced view. Former Ambassador Christopher Hill said that Trump’s approach was “obviously not presidential and very concerning coming so soon after [the] appointment of an adult as chief of staff” — a reference to John Kelly, who has recently replaced Reince Priebus in the White House.

Hill, who served as ambassador to South Korea under Bush and has participated in North Korea nuclear negotiations, added that the “focus needs to be on North Koreans,” not Trump’s tone.

Communicating via text while traveling in Eastern Europe, Hill emphasized that the “basic problem is that the [North Koreans] won’t give up nukes. We need to work with — not outsource to — Chinese and reassure allies South Korea and Japan.”

But there is no sign of the administration backing down from its position.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Pentagon watchdog sidelined by Trump resigns | Plan would reportedly bring troops in Afghanistan back by Election Day | Third service member dies from COVID-19 Trump wants troops in Afghanistan back stateside by Election Day: report 'Never Trump' Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with? MORE issued another warning to North Korea on Wednesday.

Pyongyang, he said, “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Jonathan Easley contributed.