Trump signals a shift in South Korea — and it looks like his ‘fire and fury’ threats were just a bluff

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in shake hands during a meeting at South Korea’s presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, November 7, 2017.

caption
U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in shake hands during a meeting at South Korea’s presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, November 7, 2017.
source
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae In both indicated they would take steps to boost their missile offense and defense. But Trump’s speech lacked his signature threats and focused more on diplomatic pushes. The fiery rhetoric of Trump’s early presidency may have faded, giving way to a more coherent, peaceful North Korea policy.

After months of threats flying back and forth between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a clearer picture of Trump’s policy towards Pyongyang has emerged on his trip to Seoul.

At a joint press conference on Tuesday with South Korea’s President Moon Jae In, there was a key news line about South Korea’s missile capability, but also a taste of Trump the diplomat.

The US and South Korea have long maintained an arms control treaty whereby the payload of Seoul’s missiles cannot exceed 1,100 pounds, but now the leaders have scrapped that so Moon can presumably approve the manufacture of more menacing missiles to threaten North Korea with.

Back at home, Trump had just asked Congress for an additional $4 billion in funding for a range of missile defense interceptors for the express purpose of defending against a North Korean missile attack.

Both leaders affirmed their commitment to continuing the joint military exercises that North Korea considers a rehearsal for the invasion and deposing of Kim, but Trump’s speech conspicuously lacked something – his signature threats.

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense Mattis all arguably took a more militaristic line towards Pyongyang than Trump did during their separate trips to South Korea.

Along with Moon, Trump’s speech only briefly touched on military readiness and cooperation and spent more time offering a vision of peace with North Korea.

While Moon said South Korea is “willing to offer North Korea a bright future,” Trump implored the audience to “imagine the amazing possibilities for a Korean Peninsula liberated from the threat of nuclear war where all Koreans can enjoy the prosperity that you have enjoyed right here in South Korea.”

Instead of threatening Pyongyang, Trump called on “every responsible nation, including China and Russia,” to “act with urgency and with great determination” and implement the UN Security Council’s resolutions that sanction and isolate North Korea economically. The diplomatic tone of Trump’s speech, during which he stuck firmly to his script, could have been lifted from former President Barack Obama in years past.

Trump’s new perspective on North Korea follows a revealing interview he gave to Sharyl Attkisson, in which he said he doesn’t think Pyongyang will strike the US. While Trump touted the US as a “very very strong nation,” he put stock in his relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner.

“I do believe that China, where I’m going very soon, and President Xi has been working. I really feel this. He’s been working very hard to see if he can do something but we’re going to see. But I think that estimate hopefully is extremely high,” Trump told Attkisson.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.

caption
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.
source
KCNA via REUTERS

Additionally, Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seemed to pour cold water on the idea that the US would unilaterally strike North Korea, telling South Korea’s YTN news station that he found the prospect “unimaginable.”

“The President will consult with leaders across the region to understand better what more we can do to resolve this crisis short of war,” McMaster told South Korea’s Hankyoreh of Trump’s trip to South Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam, where Trump may meet Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

So with three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific and North Korea’s Kim riled up from taunts of “little rocket man,” a more subdued Trump may have revealed his grand strategy for handling North Korea: Speak loudly, speak to everyone, and carry a big stick.