If the world’s largest economy wishes to avoid full-blown conflict with North Korea, President Donald Trump may need to adopt the measured style of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instead of engaging in a war of words with the rogue nation.
Two days after Trump’s “fire and fury” ultimatum to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which shook the international community and increased fears of military confrontation, the president has once again dialed up the pressure.
The fire and fury statement “wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said on Thursday, adding that “if he [Kim] does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody’s seen before, what will happen in North Korea.”
In an attempt to soothe concerns of armed altercations, the president’s team has insisted war remains the least desirable option.
Tillerson highlighted diplomacy on Wednesday, telling reporters that “nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours. Defense Secretary James Mattis also sought to clarify Washington’s strategy, saying late on Thursday that the U.S. preferred a diplomatic approach to the current predicament.
“Tillerson has the right line, he’s trying to dial down the pressure to make it clear that the U.S. doesn’t want regime change in North Korea,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director at U.S.-based Arms Control Association. “Donald Trump needs to follow the lead of his secretary of state.”
The president’s language has been widely criticized as unnecessary saber-rattling by the international community. New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English said the fire and fury remarks were “not helpful” in the current “very tense” environment, while Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also expressed concern with Trump’s discourse.
“It’s urgent to engage in a serious, adult conversation about mutual security concerns. China and South Korea are encouraging it, Tillerson is open to it but Trump’s reckless threats are interfering with that,” Kimball continued.
The former ExxonMobil CEO has justified the fire and fury remark, calling it “a strong message in language that Kim Jong Un would understand.”
But a forceful approach on a belligerent nation like North Korea could do more harm than good, as reflected by escalating tensions this week.
Pyongyang responded to Trump’s Tuesday comment by warning of a potential attack on Guam, which in turn saw the U.S. defense department form a plan for a potential pre-emptive attack on North Korea, NBC News reported on Wednesday.
“There is a case for talking tough [to North Korea], but the problem is that there isn’t a great deal of deliberate, coordinated strategy behind the mixed messaging coming out of Washington,” said Andrew Gilholm, Control Risks’ director of risk analysis for North Asia.
Many countries recognize that Trump’s comments don’t necessarily reflect imminent action, but “it’s very clear the North Koreans are watching those kind of comments very closely,” he continued.
In the short-term, continued intimidation will only result in further deterioration rather than a return to talks, Gilholm added.
The White House did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment for this story.
Many are saying Trump should talk more like Tillerson and less like Kim Jong Un