Donald Trump Threatened North Korea After Completely Imaginary Negotiations

Fake news is threatening to produce a very real war.

Donald Trump next to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on August 11, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
Donald Trump next to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on August 11, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

Over the weekend, a story emerged that the United States was in some sort of talks with North Korea, followed in quick succession by a series of tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump rejecting any sort of diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

One small problem: There never were any such talks.

Over the weekend, a story emerged that the United States was in some sort of talks with North Korea, followed in quick succession by a series of tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump rejecting any sort of diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

One small problem: There never were any such talks.

This particular episode in the months-long twitzkrieg between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is a parable about how bad reporting can create its own facts, leading gullible readers to act out of false information or contrived narratives. And if one of those gullible readers happens to be the president of the United States, watch out.

This drama is playing out in three parts.

First, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was talking to a group of reporters while traveling in China. He was asked whether there were any indications North Korea might want to talk with the United States. This is what Tillerson said, according to the transcript:

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We are probing. So stay tuned.

QUESTION: How do we probe?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We ask, “Would you like to talk?” 

MODERATOR: Abbie, take the last question. 

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them. 

QUESTION: Through China?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Directly, through our own channels.

Tillerson’s statement is utterly banal, along the lines of “the sky is blue.” If you know anything about U.S.-DPRK relations, you can name the “couple, three” channels by which the United States passes messages to North Korea. Those channels include Sweden, which provides consular responsibility for the United States in North Korea, and the so-called “New York Channel” through the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York. One might also count the varied “Track II” dialogues between nongovernmental experts, which have also been used in this way. (I did one in London once with real live North Koreans, pins and all.)

Moreover, what Tillerson said was not that the two countries were negotiating, but merely that the United States had expressed a willingness to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization, a conversation the North Koreans have made it very clear that they are not interested in.

The version in the New York Times stands apart from the others. Both Reuters and CNN reported that the comments were made to several reporters. The New York Times, however, did not include this fact, leaving readers with the impression that Tillerson had spoken directly with its correspondent, David Sanger. Moreover, Reuters and CNN used headlines quoting Tillerson — that the United States was “probing” North Korea through “direct channels.” But the New York Times employed the obscure circumlocution “in direct communication” that gave rise to the idea that the United States was negotiating with North Korea.

The New York Times version of events is deeply misleading, having turned a statement of the obvious by Tillerson into a revelation of a covert back-channel disarmament push. Of course, from time to time, the United States has engaged directly with North Korea using these channels — that is how poor, doomed Otto Warmbier was returned to his family. But if the State Department had secret talks that had just collapsed with North Korea, this is not how it would be announced or leaked. Perhaps a careful reader might have seen the bait-and-switch.

But for our story, only one reader matters, and he is not a careful man. So the second part of this drama played out on a golf course in New Jersey. We’ve already seen multiple stories suggesting that President Trump gets his information from television and newspapers, not briefings. One of the reasons that leaks are so endemic to this White House is that staffers know that the easiest way to get something into Trump’s brain is to get it on “Fox and Friends” or “Morning Joe.” One of new White House chief of staff John Kelly’s first tasks has been to erect barriers to prevent bad information from inundating the president. In this case, the levee broke. According to a subsequent story in the New York Times, the president had been “caught off guard” by the news — small wonder, as it was a fiction — and was “upset.”

An enraged Trump took to Twitter with a pair of tweets that promise to deepen the ongoing crisis with North Korea:

It is tempting to dismiss this as a tempest in a teacup, but the problem is that the tempest has spilt out of the cup and into the real world — false narratives have led to real threats.

Regardless of whether the spin was misleading, an impetuous Trump has now pulled the rug out from under his Secretary of State, humiliating him in a way that makes it impossible for Tillerson to continue pursuing any sort of serious diplomacy, if that was indeed his plan. If you are the North Koreans, you know very well that any offer made through Tillerson’s State Department is worthless. The president is unstable, capricious, and operating completely independently from his government.

So how will the third, and final, act play out? How will North Korea respond?

A few hours after his initial Twitter barrage, Trump returned to the topic with a comment that seemed very much like a threat.

And the State Department spokesperson, scrambling to catch up, issued a threat of her own:

North Korea, of course, already has a nuclear capability — it has conducted six nuclear explosions, including of a thermonuclear weapon, and twice fired long-range missiles that can strike targets throughout the United States. The U.S. intelligence community estimates North Korea has up to 60 missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. And yet Pyongyang still seems to face some doubts from a president who wrongly told another world leader that North Korea’s missiles are all crashing. (They aren’t.)

With the president pouring cold water on direct channels, how can Kim Jong Un reach Trump? Like everyone else, silly: By getting on cable news.

And one way to do that would be to stage a demonstration — loading a live nuclear weapon onto a real missile, firing it over Japan and detonating it at sea. The United States, Soviet Union, and China have all conducted similar tests, albeit without flying over another country. China, in particular, did this in 1966, to quiet doubts about the reality of its nuclear program. The North Koreans have threatened to do the same.

Such an act would be extraordinarily provocative, deepening the current crisis with unpredictable consequences. And yet, what would the United States do? Start a nuclear war over some dead fish? No sane president would start a war over such a provocation. Oh, crap.

Let’s hope the third act is not staged at sea.

Photo credit: KSTR/AFP/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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