Reason for concern in global flash points

In last week’s column I wrote about Joseph Yun, the lead negotiator in U.S. efforts to engage North Korea in talks to reverse its nuclear program. On Oct. 11, I had a chance to meet and question Yun during a State Department briefing arranged by the American Society of News Editors.

As I previously noted, Yun did not fill the editors at the meeting with optimism that negotiations could avert a military confrontation.

“I would like to think there is a path out there that can … build some kind of relationship and trust” was the best he could muster.

Last week Yun found himself in the national news. In a sourced story, NBC News reported that Yun has been warning congressional leaders that Pyongyang has spurned further talks in response to President Trump’s demeaning comments about North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un.

Trump has dismissed Kim with the label “Little Rocket Man” and on Twitter called efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Yun to find a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear build-up a waste of time.

It is one thing for Trump to use the threat of military action as an incentive to drive accommodations by Pyongyang, but another to be so provocative that it blocks diplomatic efforts. It appears Trump has crossed the line. Without talks, and given increasing tensions, the odds of a miscalculation leading to a military exchange increase, and with it the possibility that the confrontation could quickly escalate to all-out war.

And such a war, unlike recent conflicts, could lead to massive casualties, both civilian and military, in South Korea and potentially Japan. It could also go nuclear. The U.S. has 28,500 military personnel in South Korea, 50,000 in Japan.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut returned from a fact-finding visit to Ukraine and Estonia where he found officials “deeply worried about the increasing incoherence of U.S. foreign policy.”

A Democrat, Murphy serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. I spoke with him last week on a conference call.

A former member of the Warsaw Pact, Estonia joined NATO in 2004 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is on its eastern border, the Baltic Sea to its west. Not surprising, then, that Trump’s complimentary campaign comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and investigations into Russia’s meddling to support Trump in the election has them ill at ease.

“While they are very careful to refrain from any direct criticism of the U.S. government, it’s clear that the Estonians and the Europeans are deeply worried about the increasing incoherence of U.S. policy toward Europe,” Murphy said. “They wanted to know if the president is truly committed to NATO or whether it was just the Congress that is committed to NATO.”

In Ukraine, Murphy also found confusion over the administration’s policies. In August, despite expressing his displeasure that Congress was encroaching on executive authority, Trump signed a bill blocking him from withdrawing any existing sanctions aimed at Russia. Congress also imposed new ones. The latest sanctions target Russia's mining and oil industry, seeking to punish it for its interference in the U.S. presidential election, and for its military aggression in Ukraine.

Three months later, the president has yet to apply the sanctions.

“I think Ukrainians are very confused about President Trump’s intentions towards them,” the senator from Connecticut said. “They want to know whether this president really was in bed with the Russians during the election.”

On the other hand, Ukrainians see as a positive development Trump’s appointment of veteran diplomat Kurt Volker as a special envoy to that country.

What this adds up to is a lack of foreign policy cohesion in two parts of the world that are potential flash points for conflict. That should make us all uneasy.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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