President Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea freaked out liberal politicians and commentators, but some experts credit the president with forcing the North Korean dictator to back down from the most recent standoff.
On Monday, the official North Korean news agency reported that leader Kim Jong-Un would watch “the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” before deciding whether to proceed with plans to fire four missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam.
“In order to defuse the tension and prevent dangerous military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, it is necessary for the U.S. to make a proper option first and show it through action,” Kim said in a statement.
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Many analysts interpreted that as a capitulation on North Korea’s prior threat. It comes after Trump upped the ante by warning “fire and fury” would follow continued threats against the United States. The president also tweeted that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” to confront aggression.
Did it work?
“I think that’s very likely,” said Fred Fleitz, senior vice president of policy and programs at the Center for Security Policy. “I think the president and Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis made it clear that they are tired of North Korea’s threats … The president followed up with some very harsh rhetoric.”
The administration backed up the rhetoric with a successful orchestration of a 15-0 vote by the United Nations Security Council to impose new sanctions on North Korea. Importantly, China — North Korea’s chief benefactor — announced Monday that it would halt imports from North Korea of iron ore, coal, fish and other goods beginning September 5 as part of those sanctions.
Other experts gave Trump credit, if grudgingly.
“It is possible,” retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said on CNN when anchor John Berman asked if the president’s approach worked. “And I give great kudos to both the secretary of state and secretary of defense for tamping it down primarily in that op-ed that they wrote together, something that’s never been done before. So yeah, there was a great deal of scurry and reaction to making things better.”
“The calm, cool and collected approach of Obama — that, obviously, didn’t work. I think he [Trump] responded very clearly. And I think it was proportional.”
But Hertling suggested Kim would have backed down anyway.
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“So, yes, he did blink,” he said. “Yes, the president’s action may have caused this. But the question keeps coming back to, was it necessary? That’s where I’m going with this.”
Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), in a separate appearance on CNN, did not even give Trump grudging credit.
“His tough talk about ‘fire and fury,’ I think, did not help the situation,” she said.
Few people, however, believe the long-term threat from North Korea is over. The regime possesses nuclear weapons and continues to make progress on its long-range missile program. But Fleitz, who held a number of national security positions in the government, said the president’s approach is a refreshing break from former President Barack Obama.
“The calm, cool and collected approach of Obama — that, obviously, didn’t work,” he said. “I think he [Trump] responded very clearly. And I think it was proportional.”
Fleitz said there are additional non-military steps that can be taken against North Korea. He noted that the U.N. resolution bars foreign investment in North Korea, but only in the future. Current investments can continue. The same goes for another important source of revenue for the rogue regime — North Korean laborers working in China, Russia and elsewhere. The resolution cuts that off, but it does not apply to people already working outside of North Korea.
“They’re still there,” he said. “They all should have been sent home.”
Fleitz said the new sanctions, if enforced, would cut North Korea’s foreign revenue by a third.
“A third is not enough.”