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While Trump was distracted, North Korea calmed down. That’s not a coincidence.

Zack Beauchamp
President Donald Trump makes a statement on the violence this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia at the White House on August 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

While President Trump was engaged in an uncomfortable dance around condemning white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, North Korea quietly walked back a threat to launch missiles in the direction of American bases on Guam.

That's no coincidence. Experts think this deescalation — what analyst Robert Carlin calls "a decisive break in the action" — happened in part because the president's focus has been on Charlottesville since Friday night.

"The media (and the president) was distracted over the weekend, which gave some breathing space for the situation," Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins, tells me.

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That's because Trump's own statements — such as his vow to respond to threats from Pyongyang with "fire and fury like the world has never seen" — were partly to blame for the increased tensions between the two countries. But as soon as the Charlottesville story broke, Trump stopped talking about North Korea. And sure enough, things calmed down almost immediately.

This doesn't mean the North Korea crisis is over — US-South Korea military exercises, scheduled to begin August 21, have the potential to reignite the conflict, as North Korea sees them as little more than a dress rehearsal for an invasion.

But it does mean, amazingly enough, that a US domestic crisis has made a war with North Korea marginally less likely — merely by taking away the president's attention.

"The lack of new Trump salvos at the North does lower the risk of miscalculation," says Laura Rosenberger, who was the National Security Council director for Korea and China in the Obama administration.

"But the long-term strategic threat is still the same, and getting more serious by the day," she adds. "And that's why having a coordinated policy not driven by Trump's statements and Twitter feed is so critical."

How the North Korea escalation cycle worked

The US-North Korea tensions were driven by a vicious cycle — with North Korea, Trump, and the media each playing key roles in sustaining it.

The crisis began with a North Korean missile test at the end of July. For the first time, Pyongyang managed to successfully test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with enough range to theoretically hit New York or Washington with a nuclear bomb. The US responded, as it often does, with a show of strength — flying B-1B bombers over South Korea to signal its commitment to defending the South.

About a week later, on August 7, the North issued its response: a threat to nuke the United States if American forces struck North Korea. "Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force," North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said, using an acronym for North Korea's full formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

This kind of aggressive rhetoric is pretty standard for North Korea. Issuing threats to get the West's attention and signal strength has been Pyongyang's approach for years; it did not indicate any major change in North Korea's policy toward the United States.

When things really got scary, though, is when President Trump responded. During a public appearance on August 8, he warned that "North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States" or "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."

While threats like this are normal coming from Pyongyang, they are not how the United States usually talks to North Korea. Trump's belligerent statement raised the risk of the conflict by sending a signal to the North that its fairly normal behavior could be met with an abnormal American response — potentially including military force.

"His words could ... lead Pyongyang to miscalculate or believe it needs to act preemptively if it believes a US attack is imminent," Rosenberger told me at the time. "Those consequences could be catastrophic."

The North, ever afraid of looking vulnerable to American intimidation, responded immediately with a threat to fire missiles near Guam.

The hostility had reached a point where both sides were openly threatening military conflict.

Here's where the media comes in. In a situation like this, reporters understandably ask the president how he's thinking about the crisis. With a normal president, you'd get a normal response. But Trump is so instinctively blustery that he won't back down from even his most irresponsible rhetoric. When asked whether his "fire and fury" statement was too tough, on August 10, he responded by amping up the heat.

"Maybe it wasn't tough enough," he said. "[North Korea] should be nervous. Things will happen to them like they never thought possible."

This sent an even more belligerent signal to the North and set off even more media frenzy. As rising North Korea tensions dominated the news, the president — an avid cable news consumer — continued to weigh in, sending off threatening (and false) tweets.

It was a dangerous cycle: North Korea, Trump, and breathless media coverage all egged each other on, creating a situation where each side believed the risk of war — though still low — was growing.

"I said several times [last week] the risk of war had been minute; now it was small. But we don't expect the US president to be the one raising it," explains Mira Rapp-Hooper, a Senior Fellow at Yale Law School's China Center.

Charlottesville short-circuited the cycle

With the US media understandably refocusing on a shockingly large white supremacist rally on Friday, and then a neo-Nazi terrorist attack that killed one counterprotester on Saturday, North Korea was suddenly out of the headlines. The president's attention refocused on responding to the crisis, including damage control from his Saturday statement in which he chose not to condemn white supremacists by name.

Since the Charlottesville crisis began on Friday, Trump hasn't made any new statements on North Korea. Nor did he tweet anything new; the only presidential tweets on the subject were retweets of positive press coverage about his administration's policy — nothing that would indicate a new threat to North Korea.

This gave more sober voices on all sides a chance to take over the issue.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote a joint op-ed, published in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, in which they announced that the US has "no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea," emphasized the "peaceful" and "defensive" aims of US policy, and said the US "is willing to negotiate with Pyongyang." It was an overt attempt to undermine their boss's bluster and walk America away from the brink.

The op-ed was "clearly an attempt by the adults to create a recognizable declaratory policy before [Trump] effs it up again," Rapp-Hooper says.

In this climate, it became easier to for the North to back down from its threat to test missiles near Guam.

It's likely the North wanted to do that anyway — that it never wanted war and that its threat toward Guam was meant as a bargaining chip in a bid for negotiations with the US. It has used threats for that purpose before, and will likely use them like this again.

"This is no mixed message. It is exactly how the North moves back from the edge of the cliff," Carlin writes. "Put that together with the fact that the regime hadn't been mobilizing the population for imminent crisis over the preceding four or five days, and you get a familiar North Korean dance move."

But in a climate where the president was constantly making threats, it was harder for the North to step back from the brink without looking like Trump badgered them into submission.

This doesn't mean that North Korea has put off its threat against Guam solely because Trump's eye is focused elsewhere. It's more than likely they would have done it anyway. It's just that the president's refocus on Charlottesville helped create a climate where it was easier for the North to deescalate without losing face.

It's a strange world where the US president being pulled away from a crisis with a foreign power actually makes the US safer — but that's the nature of America under President Donald Trump.