As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula this month, the U.S. military made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore toward the Western Pacific, closing in on North Korea and its growing nuclear arsenal.
But the ship that officials portrayed as a sign of a stepped-up U.S. response to threats was in fact, at the moment that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mounted a defiant show of military force last weekend, thousands of miles away from the Korean Peninsula, operating in the Indian Ocean.
Officials’ nebulous — if not deliberately misleading — statements about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson illustrate the Trump administration’s attempt to deliver a dual message on one of its most thorny foreign problems: at once illustrating a willingness to employ force against a dangerous adversary while also steering clear of steps that could spiral out of control.
A series of binary, sometimes conflicting comments delivered by top officials in the past week highlight the Trump administration’s hope that hard-line rhetoric will have a deterrent effect and, more fundamentally, the lack of attractive options it faces on North Korea. While officials are eager to signal a break from previous U.S. policy, their strategy appears to be a continuation of the Obama administration’s attempt to use international economic and diplomatic pressure to force results in Pyongyang.
“The Trump administration, having looked at the options, is speaking out of both sides of its mouth, which if done deliberately is good policy,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security.
“The idea is that we have the means of striking back, we’re certainly going to protect our allies . . . but we’re not going to make the mistake of starting a war,” he said.
Standing at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas this week, Vice President Pence issued his latest warning to North Korea. “The patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out, and we want to see change,” he said.
But even as they highlight President Trump’s willingness to use force in new ways in Syria and elsewhere, Pence and other officials have also expressed a preference for a negotiated disarmament for North Korea.
“Our hope is that we’ll be able . . . to achieve this objective through peaceable means,” the vice president said, adding that he hoped for a resumption of negotiations.
The double-barreled comments from Pence, like those from national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior officials, also indicate the importance that China, which Trump hopes will play an instrumental role in persuading Kim to abandon his nuclear plans, holds in the administration’s strategy.
Analysts said the White House is betting that its tough talk will convince Chinese President Xi Jinping that Trump is willing to use force to shatter the long standoff with Pyongyang, prompting Beijing to use the weight of its trade ties with North Korea to help avoid a huge conflict on its border.
Trump himself has issued repeated warnings to North Korea on Twitter, calling on China for help but promising to act unilaterally if need be. “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!”
Bruce Klingner, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, said such statements appeared to be out of sync with the Trump administration’s preferred course.
“It’s a message at a much higher volume and intensity than would seem warranted, if the focus is going to be on stronger sanctions” and a renewed diplomatic process, he said.
The use of bellicose rhetoric, even when paired with messages of continuity, could bring unanticipated results. Already, North Korea has ratcheted up its rhetoric against the United States, threatening its own preemptive strike.
Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, declared this week that North Korea would use nuclear arms to “obliterate” the United States if it made a move suggesting a first use of military action.
Perhaps with that in mind, officials at the Pentagon and State Department have attempted to ratchet down speculation about potential conflict. Some of that was fueled last week ahead of a major North Korean anniversary by news of the carrier strike group’s deployment and media reports suggesting a preemptive U.S. attack might be in the works.
Military officials acknowledge that circumstances have grown far more dangerous as North Korea has made progress toward miniaturizing nuclear weapons and developing a missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
While they have drawn up a range of actions that the United States might want to take in the event of a provocative move by North Korea — such as a nuclear test or strike on its southern neighbor — the officials indicate their hope is that diplomacy will prevail.
Those options probably include stepped-up cyber and electronic activity, which would be more easily deniable and less likely to trigger a North Korean response.
“Diplomacy is only effective if it’s backed up by credible options,” said a defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration deliberations.
Officials at the State Department have signaled that a resolution to the standoff could be well off in the future.
“I think there’s not going to be an answer tomorrow or the day after that. It’s going to take more time,” Susan A. Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told reporters this week.
“Our preference is to put pressure on the North Korean regime so that they will undertake to cease this threatening behavior and roll back their illegal programs,” she said.
It is not clear what effect the news that the Carl Vinson has been thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean, rather than bearing down on the Korean Peninsula, will have in Pyongyang.
While the belief that the Carl Vinson was heading toward Korea was reported as fact by media outlets around the world — Trump last week said he was “sending an armada, very powerful” — there were hints it was perhaps not steaming there as fast as many supposed.
On April 11, U.S. Naval Institute News reported that although the carrier had canceled port calls in Australia, it had not scrubbed training events to move faster toward the Korean Peninsula and would still take more than a week to enter waters near Korea — a point that was lost amid heated talk of “war.”
Other photographs released by the Navy showed the Carl Vinson in the South China Sea from April 12 to 14.
In any case, the carrier strike force appears to be finally steaming in that direction now. A spokesman for the U.S. military’s Pacific Command said the carrier strike group is “heading north to the Western Pacific as a prudent measure.”
The spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about why Pacific Command did not clarify the location of the strike force, even as Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared to confirm the ship was heading in that direction.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Karen DeYoung and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.