North Korea looms large on U.S. President Donald Trump’s agenda during his nearly two weeks in Asia. Compared to discussions on trade and economics, and Trump’s handling of his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a now-likely one with Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have the gravest consequence for regional and global security.
With Trump, the North Korea crisis appears to be playing out on several, sometimes-contradictory levels. His national security officials hold out proposals for diplomatic contact, or military options short of full-scale war, while the president opts for brash messages to intimidate and coerce Pyongyang. It could be an effective good cop/bad cop strategy, but it runs the risk of confusing Asian partners and conveying the impression that the U.S. isn’t quite sure what to do.
Pundits in Asia are hoping Trump will keep the aggressive messaging under control, as he moves from Tokyo to Seoul to Beijing. Exposing such different approaches between Washington and the region will weaken the appearance of solidarity and give North Korean leader Kim Jong Un more freedom to maneuver.