PANMUNJOM, South Korea – The White House displayed a tough and unyielding approach to North Korea and its nuclear ambitions Monday, with President Donald Trump warning that Kim Jong Un has “gotta behave” and Vice President Mike Pence sternly advising Kim not to test America's resolve and military power.
Trump, in Washington, and Pence at the tense Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, signaled a forceful U.S. stance on North Korea's recent actions and threats. But no one was predicting what might come next.
Behind the heated rhetoric, in fact, Trump's strategy in the region looks somewhat similar to predecessor Barack Obama's – albeit with the added unpredictability of a new president who has shown he's willing to use force.
Pence, inspecting the DMZ, warned Pyongyang that after years of testing the United States and South Korea with its nuclear ambitions, “the era of strategic patience is over.” Appearing later with South Korea's acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, the vice president pointed to Trump's recent military actions in Syria and Afghanistan as signs that the new administration would not shrink from acting against the North.
“North Korea would do well not to test his resolve – or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said at the start of a 10-day trip to Asia.
Pence's remarks also came with hope for a diplomatic path. Washington, he said, was looking for security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.”
In the meantime, North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador accused the United States of turning the Korean peninsula into “the world's biggest hotspot” and creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.”
Kim In Ryong told a news conference Monday that U.S.-South Korean military exercises being staged now are the largest-ever “aggressive war drill.” He said North Korea's measures to bolster its nuclear forces are defensive “to cope with the U.S. vicious nuclear threat and blackmail,” and he said his country “is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”
America's implied threat of force isn't new, nor is hope for engagement. Previous presidents have repeatedly left all options on the table while trying to enlist China's help to pressure North Korea to pursue diplomatic solutions. The Trump administration has labeled this policy “maximum pressure and engagement,” although officials acknowledge there is no current engagement with Pyongyang.
Until recently, it has been Trump's confrontational tone that has drawn attention rather than his action. But then he ordered the unilateral missile strike against Syria, even after dismissing talk of deeper U.S. involvement in that nation's civil war.
“There is both greater unpredictability and decisiveness from President Trump,” said Victor Cha, the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Cha noted Pence's reference to “strategic patience,” an Obama administration strategy in which diplomatic and economic pressure from sanctions were given time to change the North's behavior.
“Strategic patience signaled indecision and predictability – not a good combination in Trump's eyes,” Cha said.