Months of rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea could reach a boiling point early next month when President Trump embarks on the first Asia tour of his presidency and brings his threats against Pyongyang to its front door.
Trump’s week-long, five-country journey in early November could grant him a temporary reprieve from problems brewing at home, from his crumbling relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill to his increasingly public battles with members of his own staff. But the trip, set to start on Nov. 5 in Japan, could throw a harsh spotlight on the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s approach to North Korea and the conflicting messages his Cabinet has sent on Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“It’s tough to tell what direction he’s going to go. There’s a lot of different signals that are coming out of the administration,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. “I think he needs to use this as an opportunity to really lay the groundwork of what his foreign policy strategy is with North Korea.”
Trump has openly chided Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the role diplomacy should play in dealing with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Earlier this month, the president told Tillerson to stop “wasting his time” in talks with Pyongyang after Tillerson said lines of communication exist between the administration and the Kim regime.
And Trump has labored to leave North Korea with the impression that a military strike could arrive at a moment’s notice, quipping to reporters on Oct. 5 that a relaxed dinner with his generals could symbolize a “calm before the storm.”
His actual strategy for curbing Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions remains unclear. Beyond the strict economic sanctions sought by the administration, Trump has given few clues as to how he will persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.
Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said Trump’s high-profile trip will provide “both upside and downside opportunities” for the embattled president.
“On the one hand, it takes him to a region, and to individual countries, that he’s criticized, and with which he’s already had tensions. So, a lot of things could go wrong,” Reeher said. “On the other hand, a diplomatic trip like this almost forces him to behave in a more conventional way, and that could help his image at home.”
Trump has found success on his previous jaunts abroad, only one of which was longer and broader in scope than his planned trip to Asia. A nine-day journey through the Middle East and Europe in May set the tone for his “America First” foreign policy and was virtually free from the unforced errors that often plague Trump at home. A visit to Poland and Germany in July yielded one of the most highly praised speeches of Trump’s presidency.
But the president’s tour through Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines will also be filled with opportunities to lose control of his message, as his predecessor did during his last visit to the region.
Former President Obama’s final official trip to Asia last year devolved into a spectacle after a series of mishaps overshadowed the legacy-cementing efforts he had hoped to promote with his voyage.
When Obama touched down in Hangzhou, China in Sept. 2016 ahead of the G-20 summit there, he was forced to exit Air Force One through the belly of the plane using the aircraft’s built-in stairs. Other world leaders who landed in Hangzhou received the traditional honor of disembarking their planes onto a red carpet using larger stairs that provided photo-ops of their arrivals, and China’s decision to withhold such a display for Obama was perceived as an intentional snub.
Trump, then a GOP candidate for president, said he would have instructed Air Force One to turn around and take off again if China had greeted him with a similarly austere welcome.
“They have pictures of other leaders going there coming down with beautiful red carpets, and Obama’s coming down a metal staircase, probably was built in China. It wasn’t built here. A metal staircase in the back of the plane,” Trump said during a campaign stop shortly after the incident. “I’ve got to tell if you, if that were me, I’d say, ‘You know what, folks, I respect you a lot, but let’s get out of here.’ “
Later in the trip, Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with the Philippines after Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte called him a “son of a whore” and warned the American president not to ask about his drug crackdown in Manila.
Trump has praised Duterte since taking office, and his visit to the Philippines next month — which Vice President Mike Pence first announced in April — could draw attention to the increasingly complicated U.S. relationship with its traditional ally.
Duterte’s war on illegal drugs in his country has raised human rights concerns, and some organizations have accused him of presiding over thousands of extrajudicial killings at the hands of police and vigilantes looking to snuff out drug use. According to leaked transcripts of an April phone call between the president and Duterte, Trump congratulated the controversial Filipino leader for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” a comment that quickly sparked a backlash.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership could loom large over Trump’s visit to Vietnam, which had joined the pact Trump ripped to shreds on the campaign trail. Pence said during a stop in Indonesia earlier this year that Trump would attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November, at which time Trump will likely face pressure to articulate his plans for addressing the trade deficits with Asian countries that he has long criticized.
Trump will also face pressure to outline his broader approach to a region where his predecessor focused considerable attention.
“The Trump administration dumped the pivot or rebalance, so a lot of us has been asking, ‘What’s going to replace that?'” Kazianis said, referring to Obama’s famed “Pivot to Asia” strategy.
On the North Korean question that will haunt Trump’s trip, Reeher suggested Trump should move away from the name-calling and personal insults he has leveled at North Korea’s dictator, who he has frequently referred to as “Rocket Man.”
“The dyadic conflict of Trump versus Kim Jong Un has not worked so far,” Reeher said. “And [it] has lowered the public’s confidence in the president as a manager of foreign affairs.”
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner