Trump tweets 'a yin and yang thing', Mattis is the steady hand: Minister

Defence Minister Marise Payne has downplayed concerns about Donald Trump's seemingly scattergun approach to North Korea, insisting the US President is listening to his top officials, such as the respected Defence Secretary James Mattis.

Seeking to paint a reassuring picture of US policy on the rogue state's nuclear program, Senator Payne told Fairfax Media on Wednesday that Washington was steering a steady course of pressing economic sanctions backed up by the ultimate use of force if necessary.

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne delivers a speech during an opening ceremony of Seoul Defense Dialogue 2017 in South Korea. Photo: LEE JIN-MAN

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne delivers a speech during an opening ceremony of Seoul Defense Dialogue 2017 in South Korea. Photo: LEE JIN-MAN

She was speaking after a recent visit to Washington and also after Mr Trump stunned observers by taking to Twitter to directly dismiss his own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's remark that the US was pursuing dialogue with the regime of Kim Jong-un.

Senator Payne described Mr Trump's tweets, which have sometimes thrown into confusion US policy on North Korea, as "a bit of a yin and yang thing".

"They will work those things out within the administration and they do from time to time. We've seen the President change positions on a number of issues based on Mattis' view. The best example I can think of from the beginning of the administration would be the use of torture," she said.

"We know what the President's views were on [torture] and a solid discussion with the Secretary of Defence based on his experience put that into some context for the President.

"And I think the respect with which Secretary Mattis is held in the US system, H.R. McMaster similarly, efforts that Secretary Tillerson is going to, they are really important foundational work for these very significant issues."

Mr Trump advocated using torture during the presidential election campaign but has since ditched this view reportedly on the urging of Mr Mattis, a former Marine general.

Asked whether there was a danger in the US not signalling a clear and consistent strategy to North Korea, Senator Payne said: "From my perspective, and I work with the Secretary of Defence, the position is very clear and I have no concerns about that."

Asked if Mr Trump was employing the so-called "mad man strategy" - convincing the other side he is reckless or uncontrollable enough to risk catastrophe to force them to back down - Senator Payne said she was "not going to engage in a running commentary on that".

The well-connected former Japanese Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto recently told Fairfax Media that Mr Mattis, rather than Mr Trump, would be "the final decision-maker" on military action against North Korea.

Senator Payne said the US was "still very much focussed on pursuing the effective sanctions to their fullest extent" but added she had no doubt military options remained on the table.

"I don't regard Secretary Mattis as engaging in hyperbole. He's speaking plainly. These [military options] must remain available to the United States. But our overwhelming preference is for the fullest exercise of sanctions to bring the regime to an understanding of the international community's position."

There has been speculation among US defence commentators that the US has military capabilities that would allow it to take action against North Korea while mitigating the counterattack against South Korea and Japan.

Asked about this, Senator Payne said: "Even if I think it, I'm not going to talk about it."

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The story Trump tweets 'a yin and yang thing', Mattis is the steady hand: Minister first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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