President Trump has been on relatively good behavior during this visit to South Korea—no “fire and fury” so far—even going so far as to make what sounds an awful lot like a call for negotiations over the country’s nuclear program. “It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal that is good for the people of North Korea and for the world,” Trump said at a news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
This wouldn’t be all that notable except that Trump has on multiple occasions dismissed the idea of negotiating with North Korea as a waste of time. Most notably, he publicly rebuked his own secretary of state’s diplomatic efforts at the beginning of October. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” He later followed up: “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to describe this as a chance change in U.S. policy, simply because it’s not clear that anything Trump tweets is an actual articulation of U.S. policy. Quiet diplomatic outreach to North Korea has continued over the past few months, despite Trump’s bluster. Trump also said today that he’d seen “certain movement” from North Korea and “a lot of progress on the issue.” It’s not clear what this refers to. South Korea’s spy agency announced just last week that the North appears to be preparing for a new missile test.
It’s possible Trump was simply telling his hosts what they wanted to hear as he visits Seoul, a city of millions of people within range of North Korean artillery. Moon has been an advocate of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and Trump’s threats of war have prompted alarm in South Korea. Trump’s more conciliatory tone also comes a few days after a Pentagon assessment that a full ground invasion would be the only way to secure all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities “with complete certainty.” Such a scenario would likely cause thousands, or even millions, of casualties.
It’s a lot harder to talk tough about fire and fury when you’re looking right at the people who would be burned.