The NY Times tells us that Trump's rhetoric on Kim Jong Un is viewed by his top aides as unhelpful but inevitable:
WASHINGTON — When President Trump gave a fiery campaign speech in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday evening, he drew a rapturous roar by ridiculing Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “Little Rocket Man.”
Among diplomats and national security specialists, the reaction was decidedly different. After Mr. Trump repeated his taunt in a tweet late Saturday and threatened that Mr. Kim and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they continue their invective against the United States, reactions ranged from nervous disbelief to sheer terror.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to casually threaten to annihilate a nuclear-armed foe was yet another reminder of the steep risks inherent in his brute-force approach to diplomacy. His strengths as a politician — the ability to appeal in a visceral way to the impulses of ordinary citizens — are a difficult fit for the meticulous calculations that his own advisers concede are crucial in dealing with Pyongyang.
Yeah, this is not normal diplomacy:
The disconnect has led to a deep uncertainty about whether Mr. Trump is all talk or actually intends to act. The ambiguity could be strategic, part of an effort to intimidate Mr. Kim and keep him guessing. Or it could reflect a rash impulse by a leader with little foreign policy experience to vent his anger and stoke his supporters’ enthusiasm.
His new chief of staff and his national security team have drawn a line at trying to rein in his more incendiary provocations, fearing that their efforts could backfire with a president who bridles at any effort to control him. What remains unclear — and the source of much of the anxiety in and out of the government and on both sides of the Pacific — is whether they would step in to prevent the president from taking the kind of drastic action that matches his words, if they believed it was imminent.
Oh for heaven's sake - they won't be going full speed ahead on a random order to attack North Korea. That said, if the Fat Boy decides he needs to emphasize some point by attacking, e.g, Guam, then we will be put in a corner.
Veterans of diplomacy and national security and specialists on North Korea fear that, whatever their intended result, Mr. Trump’s increasingly bellicose threats and public insults of the famously thin-skinned Mr. Kim could cause the United States to careen into a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado.
“It does matter, because you don’t want to get to a situation where North Korea fundamentally miscalculates that an attack is coming,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former intelligence and National Security Council specialist who is now a senior adviser for Korea at Bower Group Asia. “It could lead us to stumble into a war that nobody wants.”
As an aside, please tell me that "Sue Me" Terry trained as a lawyer. Darn it! Evidently her name was not her destiny.
As to how this game seems to be playing out, Trump's rhetoric (and the escalating verbal war it has provoked) has created risks and opportunities for the many players staring at this corner of the global board.
For the US, it may convince the Chinese that the situation is so dire that they need to bring North Korea to heel, perhaps by way of regime change. That could be a win for the US.
On the other hand, China can go in a couple of directions. They want a stable North Korea on their border unaligned with the West, so regime change might look like an attractive way to get there. They also would like to ease the US out of their part of the world, so the Chinese might imagine themselves encouraging Japan and South Korea to cooperate with China on other issues in exchange for a Chinese-led effort to de-fang or de-throne Kim Jong Un. If China can rebrand themselves as the force for calm and the US as the force for disruption they may achieve both stability and a reduced US influence in the Pacific; call that a win-win for them. I should add that in such a scenario Trump will claim credit for succeeding in the role of 'bad cop' so (after everybody's blood pressure has dropped back into the high normal range) he ought to be able to turn this into a US win as well.
And the Fat Boy? He benefits from the escalating rhetoric since he has an obvious opportunity to put (or keep) his country on a wartime footing and quash any internal opposition angling for outreach and accommodation with the West. Unity through fear of nuclear annihilation. In the longer run he presumably is looking for security guarantees rather than an opportunity to invade and occupy a demoralized South Korea. However, that has its own risk - if his security is assured, why is his country on a war footing and the people starving to maintain the military, hmm? In a sane world his actual martial ardor would be roughly zero, but this performance art lets him rally his generals and keep his captives on his side. The Fat Boy needs an enemy.