“The shield stands guard,” Vice President Mike Pence told sailors and Marines on the USS Ronald Reagan yesterday in regard to North Korea, “and the sword stands ready.” Diplomacy, on the other hand, has been relegated to the sidelines. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, Pence calls the diplomatic efforts over the last 25 years to rein in Pyongyang a “colossal failure,” at least in terms of direct negotiations:
When Vice President Pence spoke at the Korean demilitarized zone on Monday, he said that the United States sought to solve the North Korean crisis “through peaceable means and negotiations,” after increasing pressure on the Pyongyang regime. But in an interview with me on Wednesday afternoon, he adopted a harder line: The Trump administration, he said, demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs without any promise of direct negotiations with the United States.
This change in message, if translated into a firm policy of not negotiating with North Korea, could have huge implications. If the United States is unwilling to negotiate with North Korea, and the regime is unwilling to abandon its nuclear and missile programs based on pressure alone, the prospect of the United States using military action to prevent North Korea from developing the capability to strike the continental United States becomes more likely. Also, the Trump administration could open a gap with its key allies as well as China, who all anticipate an eventual return to something akin to the previous multilateral negotiations with Pyongyang.
“I think the path of negotiations with North Korea has been a colossal failure now for more than 25 years,” Pence told me. “We believe that through discussions and negotiations among nations apart from North Korea that we may well be able to bring the kind of economic and diplomatic pressure that would result in North Korea finally abandoning its nuclear ambitions and its ballistic missile program.”
Rogin notes that the new effort seems directed entirely at Beijing, and that China’s leaders appear to be responding to that pressure as the Trump administration hopes. Our other allies expect us to return to the multilateral table, however. Japan’s Shinzo Abe used the same occasion to emphasize the need to get to a negotiated settlement, and South Korea’s hardly going to be anxious to be Ground Zero for a military solution to the stalemate. They want security and a hard line, but not a complete break in talks and the missiles that will fly as a result.
On the other hand, nothing that Pence tells Rogin prevents Japan or South Korea from pursuing those avenues — even with our support. The position staked out by Pence can be interpreted as meaning that the US has been too engaging, and that has encouraged intransigence rather than rationality from the Kim regime. They crave US media and diplomatic attention, and so the best way to deal with provocations is to withdraw it, and remind them of our own military options. That could be a good cop/bad cop play, with Japan and South Korea in the former role, and the US and perhaps China in the latter. That would fit well with Rex Tillerson’s terse response to Pyongyang’s missile test in March, and be consistent with Tillerson’s assessment that “diplomacy has failed” in this crisis. Feed a cold, starve a fevered dictator, or something.
North Korea has already offered its own response, and it’s not terribly surprising. Be on the lookout for their “super-mighty” pre-emptive strike:
The North Korean government, via a state-run newspaper, warned of a “super-mighty preemptive strike” against the U.S. that would reduce both its military forces in South Korea and the American mainland “to ashes,” according to a Reuters report published Thursday.
“In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched, it will completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists’ invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes,” The Rodong Sinmun, the officials newspaper of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, said.
Whatever you say, pal. Here’s the ABC News report on Pence’s address on the Ronald Reagan, along with a final question: where does the misdirection involving the USS Carl Vinson task group fit into this new strategy? Strategic confusion? That’s working … at least in the US, anyway.