On his first visit to South Korea as American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson last week said that the longstanding American policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea was over.
Coming amid annual war games between the U.S. and South Korea and on the heels of a North Korean missile test, this came across as tough talk.
Then when the Chinese told Mr. Tillerson their preference was for dialogue with North Korea, much of the media analysis focused on the theme of superpower clash. The assumption was that the Trump administration wants to get harsh but can't if China doesn't.
Actually, this wasn't the story. There was no clash. What actually happened is quite normal and less exciting. It is that the new administration in Washington is conducting a review of North Korea policy because it believes the strategic patience posture of the Obama administration didn't work.
The tough talk ― Mr. Tillerson said all options, including military retaliation, are on the table ― was not a policy. It was a holding statement designed to convey commitment while policy is worked out.
During his East Asia trip, then, far from telling people what American policy was, Mr. Tillerson was listening. In developing policy, he needed to factor in what his friends in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul told him.
With regard to North Korea, Mr. Tillerson, and his boss, Mr. Trump, are doing exactly the same as their predecessors. Each started from the same point of extreme frustration with an anti-American adversary bent on developing weapons of mass destruction who seems immune to the usual threats and pressure that the world's biggest military power is able to bring to bear.
Each also heard the same warning by the respective commander of U.S. forces in South Korea that conflict could lead to unimaginable consequences. Each opted for dialogue. In 2003, talks expanded to include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Each experienced this engagement as a similar pattern. The North Koreans would walk out over some imagined issue, then return after some kind of concession, and agree to stop their weapons program, and eventually be exposed as having lied.
This merry dance led to Mr. Obama's strategic patience policy. It was code for "out of options."
If the pattern holds, the Trump administration will go through the same process, although with more fist-shaking and tweeting, and end with an out-of-options policy under a different name to distinguish it from Mr. Obama's.
But things never quite turn out as you imagine them. Unforeseen factors could change this picture.
Given the history, there are two circumstances that could lead North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and one of them could happen on Mr. Trump's watch. One would be a coup within North Korea that brings to power a new leadership that no longer needs to pursue the phony war with the outside world that has been used to justify the internal controls and heavy defense spending.
The other would be if Pyongyang were to be appropriately pressured. What could this mean? History shows that sanctions don't really work against leadership that feels it has nothing to lose. What works is force.
For example, if the South Korean air force were to retaliate to the next North Korean provocation and demonstrate its clear superiority and if this action were supported by America, China and Japan, the North Koreans might well be cowed into giving up their weapons program and allow UN inspectors to verify.
At this stage, though, given both the need to be willing to follow through and face the unintended consequences and the differing politic interests of the regional players, such action looks unlikely.
And this means that the Trump administration will need to continue the same policy. If we don't like the sound of strategic patience, perhaps we could call it tactical frustration.
Michael Breen is the CEO of Insight Communications Consultants, a public relations company, and author of "The Koreans" and "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader."