Major headline: The president is threatening war again and personally insulting the psycho who rules North Korea.
Minor headline: The president has learned how to thread tweets.
I’m not sure which is more ominous.
…Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
Some Trump critics are grumbling on Twitter that Tillerson should resign rather than have his boss publicly undermine his diplomacy this way. To me it seems like an obvious, if hamfisted, attempt at good cop/bad cop. This is Trump’s version of the “madman theory,” trying to scare the NorKs into taking Tillerson up on his offer of dialogue by making them believe POTUS might flip out and nuke them soon if they don’t.
It’s working too, at least in making North Korea wonder about Trump’s motives. A few days ago WaPo reported that the familiar dynamic in which sober American analysts try to parse Pyongyang’s bizarre actions for strategic hints had reversed itself. Now it’s the NorKs who are quietly sounding out American experts to see if Trump’s just posturing by insulting them or if he’s genuinely off his nut.
“Their number-one concern is Trump. They can’t figure him out,” said one person with direct knowledge of North Korea’s approach of experts on Asia with Republican connections…
[North Korea’s] questions since [earlier in Trump’s term] have become more specific. Why, for instance, are Trump’s top officials, notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, directly contradicting the president so often?…
“My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going, so they’re trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington,” [expert Evans] Revere said. “They haven’t seen the U.S. act like this before.”
The North Koreans allegedly displayed an “encyclopedic” knowledge of Trump’s tweets at a meeting with western experts in Switzerland earlier this month. If convincing Kim that Trump has an itchy trigger finger makes him come to the table, great, but those in the know seem convinced that saber-rattling will make things worse, not better. The story quoted above notes that, tweets or no tweets, the North Koreans ruled out any freeze on nuclear activity in the Switzerland meeting, even in exchange for the U.S. freezing military exercises with South Korea. Tillerson himself said yesterday, “I think the whole situation’s a bit overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down. Obviously it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That’d calm things down a lot.” So much for calming things down after today.
In fact, Trump’s aides warned him specifically before his UN speech a few weeks ago not to attack Kim Jong Un personally, as a megalomaniac cult leader used to absolute obedience is apt to behave unpredictably when belittled. Didn’t matter: Trump tossed a reference to “Rocket Man” into the speech anyway and has since taken to demeaning Kim by adding “little” to the nickname. For Trump, the name-calling may just be tough-guy posturing a la the Republican primaries. For the psycho in Pyongyang who’s unaccustomed to it, who knows. If it stings Kim enough, he may feel the impulse to do something dramatic to prove he’s “big.”
In lieu of an exit question, read this short but useful piece published a week ago by Axios on what the NorKs ultimately want from the U.S. Maybe they’d agree eventually to a temporary nuclear freeze in return for the U.S. scaling back its own military activity in the area, but probably not until they’ve developed an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. An American expert involved in the talks with North Korea did offer Trump some advice in the meantime, though: No aggressive rhetoric, please, especially if it contradicts what other American officials are saying. The more Kim feels threatened, the more he’s going to race ahead with nuclear development as a deterrent to a U.S. preemptive strike. And the more contradictory America’s message is, the more apt Kim is to get confused, panic, and do something rash. Fast-forward a week and we’ve got … aggressive, contradictory rhetoric on Twitter. Oh well.