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North Korea Confusion Illustrates Trump Administration's Divide Over Foreign Policy


The question of what to do about North Korea has kept generations of U.S. policymakers awake at night. It's also taken on greater urgency this summer with North Korea's missile test and growing nuclear stockpile. But as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, what the U.S. position on North Korea exactly is depends on which member of the Trump administration you ask.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Start with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was pretty clear this week about what the U.S. doesn't want.


REX TILLERSON: We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.

KELLY: Speaking at the State Department, Tillerson's message was, let's talk.


TILLERSON: We're trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your enemy. We are not your threat.

KELLY: But how to square that with more hawkish views expressed by other members of President Trump's national security team, such as CIA Director Mike Pompeo? He told a crowd two weeks ago at the Aspen Security Forum the president has asked him to produce a range of options.


MIKE POMPEO: It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that. But the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today. So from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two, right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.

KELLY: In other words, separate Kim Jong Un from his nukes. Pompeo stopped short of explicitly advocating regime change, but he did add this.


POMPEO: The North Korean people I'm sure are lovely people and would love to see him go as well. As you might know, they don't live a very good life there.

KELLY: So which is it? Is the Trump administration leaning towards talking or toppling?

JOEL WIT: I think that the administration really doesn't have a strategy and really doesn't know what to do.

KELLY: Joel Wit, a former State Department negotiator who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations - he's now with the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins.

WIT: The real wildcard for me is, what role is the White House playing, and how does the national security adviser fit into this - because everything we're seeing, all the different statements, the lack of a strategy reflects a lack of central direction in formulating and implementing a policy.

KELLY: Michael Green agrees that U.S. policy towards North Korea is chaotic. Green was the top Asia official on George W. Bush's National Security Council. He argues part of the challenge is there are no good options, not with the current regime in Pyongyang.

MICHAEL GREEN: It's very hard to see how we can convince North Korea to give up its advancing weapons systems, nuclear tests, missile tests through diplomacy. And I think 90 percent-plus experts who follow the North Korean situation would say ultimately the only way you're going to have a denuclearized North Korea is when this regime is gone.

KELLY: Which prompts the question, does U.S. military action of some form begin to look more likely? Green says hitting North Korea's nuclear or missile facilities would carry huge risks, including retaliation against U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. But there are those missile test flights.

GREEN: The other option would be to shoot down one of these missiles with THAAD or Aegis. Both systems have proven highly effective in trial runs. The question is, how would they work in the real world? But that's a somewhat less risky option.

KELLY: Meanwhile, Joel Wit, the former State Department negotiator, notes the U.S. and South Korea are due to hold joint military exercises later this month, which will add to tensions. Wit says a few months ago he thought talk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula was exaggerated, that reporters were hyping the situation. Now, Wit says, not least because of the mixed messages coming from Washington, he's not so sure. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.