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Trump’s Declaration of North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terror Is Just Another in a Long Line of Policy Flip-Flops

A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner

President Trump’s objective of getting North Korea to abandon
its nuclear arsenal is clear. His strategy for achieving that goal,
however, is not.

Even less clear are Trump’s communications to the world, and
North Korea, about American intentions. He has flip-flopped and
changed his tune on North Korea multiple times in just his first 10
months in office, making it impossible for anyone to know what he
will do next. Effective foreign policy, on the contrary, requires
the president to signal credible and consistent assurances to
allies and threats to adversaries.

Trump’s recent trip to Asia and his
designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism
,
unfortunately, reveal either an inability or disinclination to
conduct foreign policy in this manner. The consequences of
Trump’s inconsistency are potentially dire.

Prior to the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump characterized
his North Korea strategy as “What I would do very simply is say,

China, this is your baby
. … You solve the problem.” Months
later the president appeared to abruptly end that strategy,
tweeting, “I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi
& China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out.

At least I know China tried!
” During his recent trip to
Asia, however, the president changed back to an earlier refrain:
China can fix this problem quickly and
easily.”

On the diplomatic front, in June of this year Trump noted,
“The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime
has failed, many years it has failed. Frankly, that
patience is over
.” A month later he offered an answer to
what might come next: “North Korea best not make any more
threats to the United States,” or else “[t]hey will be
met with
fire and fury
like the world has never seen.”

Then, during his recent Asia trip, he again changed course.
Instead of elaborating on his implied military threat and trying to
amplify its coercive power, Trump called for “progress, not
provocation … stability, not chaos, and … peace, not war.” Those words sounded a
lot like a call to the hard and slow work of diplomacy. Bolstering
that notion, during the trip Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
indicated that Trump had invited the North Korean regime to direct
negotiations; an extension, perhaps, of the “direct contact” that Trump appeared to
have ruled out previously but that the secretary said had in fact
been ongoing.

But again on Monday, Trump reversed course yet again, declaring
North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and imposing further
sanctions on the regime.

So what is the Trump administration’s strategy towards
North Korea? Does China play a critical role or not? Have
diplomatic means and patience been abandoned? Is the U.S.
prioritizing direct talks with the North Korean regime or will only
threats and force resolve the situation? In the past year, the
president has suggested the answer is “yes” to each of
those strategic options. At times, he has said both yes and no to
the same option at the same time.

If Americans cannot determine what the president’s
strategy is, then how can the North Korean regime? Media reports
indicate that the North Koreans are indeed confused by Trump and
have contacted former American officials trying to
ascertain what exactly Trump is doing.

Trump’s defenders argue that his vacillations are
strategic, designed to pressure North Korea into negotiations by
threatening “devastating
attacks. But Trump’s threats have been anything but clear and
credible.

Not only does North Korea have trouble understanding Trump, his
threats are in fact empty. Analysts agree the United States has no
real military option at this point. According to a Pentagon assessment and other analyses, any
attempt to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal by force would
require a ground invasion, likely resulting in hundreds of
thousands of deaths in the first few days of conflict and creating
a significant risk that North Korea would use nuclear weapons
against Seoul and Tokyo.

Nor is there any reason to believe that re-designating North
Korea a sponsor of terrorism or imposing additional sanctions will
have much impact. Indeed, the very fact that North Korea was able
to develop nuclear weapons while laboring under heavy sanctions
over decades makes clear
how unlikely
it is that additional penalties will encourage Kim
Jong Un to change course.

In light of the facts, Trump’s rhetorical inconsistency makes
conflict more likely, not less. If the North Koreans can’t figure
out what Trump’s strategy is, but they start to believe his threats
about using military force, then the risk of a North Korean
pre-emptive strike rises significantly. The risk of U.S.
miscalculation also rises. If North Korea begins preparations to
defend itself against what it believes is an imminent American
attack, the United States might misread the signs and think North
Korea was about to attack, thus setting off a conflict that neither
side desired.

Instead of flip-flopping between approaches, the president needs
to focus on sending North Korea consistent and clear messages. If
he doesn’t, Kim Jong Un could miscalculate, and that’s a nuclear
mistake we cannot afford.

Erik
Goepner
, a retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force, is a
visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute. A. Trevor Thrall is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy
Department and associate professor at George Mason University’s
Schar School of Policy and Government.