No foreign policy issue is more difficult, delicate or dangerous than the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. That's why Democratic and Republican presidents alike have carefully calibrated their words and actions toward North Korea's communist regime. President Donald Trump recklessly raised the threat level this week with his bombastic promise to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea and then said Thursday maybe that wasn't tough enough. The president should tone down his remarks, get his advisers on the same page and reassure America's allies that a military strike is not imminent.
Trump's impetuous outburst caught his own staff by surprise, undercut Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he was traveling in the region, alarmed America's allies such as South Korea and Japan, and failed to impress his target, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Shortly after Trump warned North Korea on Tuesday that any further nuclear threats would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen," the North doubled down. It called Trump's warning "a load of nonsense" and declared that its military would soon finalize a plan to fire missiles off the coast of Guam, a Pacific territory of the U.S. and the base for 16,000 American military members and their families.
Trump's national security team worked again Thursday to tamp down the remarks, just as Trump was piling on. This all comes amid reports the North had succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to be carried by ballistic missiles. It follows a series of new tests by the North in its development of intercontinental ballistic missile systems capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Global concerns over the program prompted even China, the North's chief patron, to endorse new U.N. sanctions on Saturday aimed at driving the North to the bargaining table. With his incendiary language, the president has emboldened North Korea, drawn a red line for the West and created an opening for China and Russia to ignore enforcing the new sanctions.
The immediate task is to calm nerves on the Korean peninsula, where about 23,500 U.S. troops are based. The administration also needs to get its policy straight; the new sanctions created an opportunity to further isolate North Korea and to test the climate for direct negotiations over its weapons program. South Korea already had begun pursuing a more robust diplomatic track. Trump's bluster has caused allies to reassess their position, soured the climate for talks and let loose another internal administration squabble.
Issuing threats and raising the specter of nuclear retaliation plays into Kim's corner by making America an unstable co-equal in the Korean standoff. Now it's up to the retired generals in Trump's White House to clean up after a president who wings it on security policy and says whatever comes into his head. This is a volatile time on the Korean peninsula, and the prudent course for now is to ratchet down the volume.