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 TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her 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) HaleySunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Trump previews UN message: Body 'has not lived up to' its potential Trump Jr. to Dem Senator: 'You admitted to hitting your wife so hard it gave her a black eye!' 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 TillersonSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Pompeo working to rebuild ties with US diplomats: report NYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story 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 GrahamSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' 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 ClintonSexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not 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 ObamaThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing 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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Ben & Jerry’s co-founders announce effort to help 7 Dem House challengers Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE (I-Vt.) described the president’s remarks as “bombastic” on Wednesday, the same word that Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? Sexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points MORE (D-Calif.) used the previous day. 

Republican Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ 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: Trump identifies first soldier remains from North Korea | New cyber strategy lets US go on offense | Army chief downplays talk of 'Fort Trump' Pompeo backed continued US support in Yemen war over objections from staff: report Stand with veterans instead of predatory for-profit colleges 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.