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Analysts: Trump’s Tweets on North Korea May Aggravate Tensions

FILE photo shows President Donald Trump's tweeter feed on a computer screen in Washington.

Whenever North Korea launches one of its missiles in the Pacific or decides it’s going to test a nuclear device, presidents of the United States have traditionally responded by issuing an official White House statement. But the 45th president Donald J. Trump does it differently: he tweets.

“North Korea has conducted a major nuclear test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States,” Trump tweeted on Sept. 3rd, soon after the Kim Jong Un regime announced it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb small enough to fit onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Often off-the-cuff, Trump’s tweets are playing a key role in ratcheting up tensions in the region over North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program. His comments puzzle many North Korea watchers in the region and in the U.S. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, including Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), have also expressed worries over Trump’s “vague Twitter bluster.”

Double-edged sword

Analysts say the president’s frequent use of Twitter in addressing North Korea is “a double-edged sword.” Since his inauguration on Jan. 20, he has sent out close to 1,500 Twitter messages, and 38 of them concerned the isolated country, either criticizing Kim’s provocative acts or slamming China for not doing enough to rein in its longstanding ally.

“While it gives the president great flexibility and a great opportunity in communicating to North Korean leaders and to the North Korean population as well as the rest of the world,” Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert with the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA’s Korean Service, “it also puts an unusual premium on the credibility of his actions that would seem to be associated with his comments.”

With over 38 million followers on Twitter, Trump can dominate headlines or at times stir up worries among U.S. allies and other countries in the region with a single tweet.

Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, said he sees the president’s use of Twitter as a “healthy” and “invigorating” way of communicating directly with domestic and international audiences. But, he added, Trump’s tweets carry the weight of the presidency and thus need to be taken seriously.

“We are getting spontaneous, immediate reaction to certain events -- like the missile launch that overflies Japan, or [the firings of] ICBMs that could reach the U.S. -- in regards to developments with North Korea,” DeTrani said. “I don’t think what we are hearing is the process per se, which will follow those initial comments when the senior leadership of the country looks at all the issues, drills down on the issues and comes up with some options, and how we would work with our allies.”

Although Twitter makes it easy for Trump to send signals to allies and adversaries in the region in a timely manner, a big question mark remains on how the North Korean leadership and decision makers understand, interpret and process his remarks, the American Enterprise Institute’s Eberstadt said.

“One of the unfortunate things is that [the tweets] may encourage North Korean rulers to miscalculate in a very dangerous way,” Eberstadt said. “Any president has to be very careful about the credibility of their comments, promises [and] warnings and [Trump] so far has not redounded to the U.S. benefits.”

'Fire fury'

On Aug. 8, Trump said that the U.S. would respond to North Korea’s threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” a warning to which the regime replied with a threat to lob a missile toward the U.S. territory of Guam. Then came his tweet on Aug. 11 in which he said, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

Laura Rosenberger, who was the National Security Council director for Korea and China in the Obama administration, said Trump’s fiery rhetoric and contradictory statements on Twitter about the direction of the U.S. policy toward North Korea are harming American credibility, on which deterrence depends.

“The president has used at times very hot rhetoric and has also said things that are directly in contradiction with what other members of his administration have said,” said Rosenberger, now a senior fellow and director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. “That sends very mixed messages to both our allies and our adversaries and increases both the chances of miscalculation and undermines any real credible strategy that’s necessary in order to press North Korea to denuclearize and abandon its missile programs.”

Other analysts point out that if Twitter is used with forethought when trying to resolve the North Korean crisis, there could be extraordinarily compelling results.

“Twitter can be a very effective tool [in that it] can take his messages straight to the North Korean people,” said George Hutchinson, managing editor of the International Journal of Korean Studies. Hutchinson emphasized that other U.S. efforts to dissuade the regime from further developing nuclear weapons over the past 20 or more years have all failed.

Jenny Lee contributed to this report which originated on VOA Korean.