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On North Korea, Some Lawmakers See Scattershot Trump Approach

‘It’s hard to figure out what the consistent message or the priority is’

People at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, watch a television showing President Donald Trump on Aug. 9. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)
People at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, watch a television showing President Donald Trump on Aug. 9. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

One day, aggressively enforcing sanctions is the key to solving the North Korea issue. The next, President Donald Trump threatens to “totally destroy” the country. And some senior lawmakers are troubled by what they see as a lack of consistency from the commander in chief.

As the president vacillates between a sanctions-based approach that presses North Korea’s allies to do more and threats to take down the Kim Jong Un government along with its nuclear and missile programs, some top Democrats want Trump and his team to settle on a consistent strategy. But it appears there is little they can do to bring that about.

Last week illustrated how the White House’s message on dealing with Pyongyang can differ widely from day to day.

During a telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two leaders “committed to maximizing pressure on North Korea through vigorous enforcement of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” according to a White House statement Monday.

But by the next day, Trump was criticizing the U.N. for failing to deal with a list of issues, including Iran and its nuclear and missile programs. He was also suggesting he would annihilate the North if it attacked the United States or its allies. He put the United Nations on notice that he expects it to address the matter — or he will take military action.

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“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump said of Kim. “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”

By Thursday, Trump was back to sanctions, slapping new ones on Pyongyang via an executive order that grants the Treasury Department new authority to “target” businesses and other entities that “finance and facilitate trade with North Korea” or send goods, services and technologies there, according to a White House pool report. The president called such actions by businesses and others “unacceptable.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of the few world leaders to call “Donald” by his first name in public, told reporters during a meeting with Trump they agree “the key at this moment is to exercise and apply pressure against North Korea in a robust manner.”

Pressure, not a potentially devastating military action. It was a departure from “total destruction” in just 48 hours.

Tough talk

Several Republican senators with senior posts on foreign policy and national security committees said this week they do see a clear approach from Trump and his team: one that uses tough rhetoric to put the Kim government on notice while tightening the screws via sanctions and leaning on China to do more — all while studying military options. Many Republicans share Trump’s stance that a nuclear-armed North cannot be tolerated.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said he met recently with administration officials about North Korea, adding they do have a plan.

Another panel member, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, described the president’s strategy this way: “Ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea but also making sure the pressure is ratcheted up on China and Russia to cooperate.”

Johnson said the president’s strategy is built on a belief that the North cannot be allowed to have long-range missiles and atomic weapons. “This administration appears ready to back that up, and China and Russia need to be listening — so does Kim Jong Un,” he said.

Seeking coherence

Some key Democrats aren’t so sure, however.

One is Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

“I think there’s incoherence not only on North Korea, but also to our allies. Going back to trying to repeal that trade agreement with the South Koreans, etc., at a time you would think our effort would be to coordinate more closely on this issue,” Reed said. “Then there’s this issue that we’re devoting ourselves to diplomacy first and then talking about significant military action.

“I think the notion that every option has to be on the table makes sense,” he said. “It’s a matter of consistent messaging and priorities. It’s hard to figure out what the consistent message or the priority is.”

Asked if he sees any consistency or coherence in the Trump team’s approach and messaging, Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Foreign Relations ranking member, replied “no” with a serious face and no hesitation. “It just adds more challenges to a situation that’s already dangerous,” Cardin said of Trump’s annihilation threat before the U.N. General Assembly.

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Across the Capitol, House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff of California has also called for a comprehensive plan from the Trump administration.

“Now more than ever, we must reduce the chances of a miscalculation becoming a full-blown military conflict, one which could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians on the Korean Peninsula,” he said in a statement last week.

“Sanctions alone will not prevent North Korea from engaging in tests and behavior that threaten their neighbors and the United States,” Schiff said. “They must be combined with a strategy, in concert with our allies in South Korea and Japan, intended to change the regime’s behavior.”

But there is little the concerned Democrats can do to force Trump and his administration to shift tactics. Using legislation to require a new North Korea plan would likely be an uphill climb since Republicans control both chambers, Trump holds the veto pen and GOP members have not criticized the total destruction warning.

They can press Pentagon and other administration officials to come to Capitol Hill and explain their policies, messaging and strategic objectives. Senior administration officials did just that last week, but Reed said many senators left unsatisfied.

That classified session, he said, “raised more questions.”

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