Lots of news about Rex Tillerson’s visit to Asia. That’s partly because people are trying to understand what kind of Secretary of State he will be and partly because North Korea has been ramping up its missile tests and may have a nuclear weapon that will fit on some of those missiles.
North Korea’s nuclear program is difficult to deal with diplomatically. Kim Jong Un sees the program as necessary to North Korea’s continued existence and his position as dictator. He is not entirely wrong in that. Neither China nor Russia, his nearest neighbors who might be able to influence him, wants him to have nuclear weapons, but they don’t want North Korea to collapse either, which could be the outcome of too much pressure on the regime.
Further, as we saw with Iran, it’s highly unlikely North Korea will give up its progress in nuclear weapons and missiles, and it certainly won’t as a condition for holding talks with other countries about that program. Who is to “blame” for North Korea’s progress in those areas is a question I won’t go into in this post.
Tillerson is new to government, but a giant corporation like Exxon has many similar characteristics. When he was nominated for Secretary of State, it was pointed out that he had negotiated with other countries for Exxon. Presumably that experience prepared him to meet officials of other countries as a representative of the United States. It should also have prepared him for the basics of negotiating at high levels. However, Tillerson seems unprepared for the scrutiny applied to high government officials, he seems to spurn the establishment tasked with providing him the background he needs for negotiations, and the administration’s chaotic organization may be limiting his actions.
Let’s look at what experts on North Korea have to say. (Did Tillerson consult North Korea experts at the State Department? Did he bring any on his trip?)
William R. McKinney gives a plausible strategy that North Korea may be following. It’s important to note that the North Korean regime is hard enough to read that any description of their strategy contains a great deal of surmise. But they have made clear statements of their intent. McKinney also summarizes the five basic responses available to the US and its allies:
- Maintain the status quo
- Expand and strengthen allied defenses
- Undertake kinetic military action
- Demonstrate our extended deterrence strategy
- Seek broader engagement with North Korea
Most North Korea experts recommend engagement through talks. Predicating those talks on North Korea’s giving up its nuclear weapons is a nonstarter. There are variants on exactly what is recommended. Here is a selection of expert opinion:
I am sure that a number of people in the State Department have written white papers that incorporate similar ideas. Has Tillerson read those papers, these articles, talked to the authors?
Tillerson stuck with President Donald Trump’s proposed 30% cut in State Department funding, saying “…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in.” Keep that in mind as I work through the chronology of his Asia trip.
On Wednesday, it appeared that he might be taking some of this advice:
He will explore with regional powers the creation of a broader international campaign similar to the Obama administration’s global approach on the nuclear deal with Iran, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the trip. Key to that will be more European participation, one official said.
In Tokyo, Tillerson echoed one of Trump’s favorite words: “The diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed. So we have 20 years of a failed approach” but did not offer an alternative beyond standing with Japan. The same day, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said “We don’t want to get back into the six-party talks. We’re not willing to do that. Been there, done that.”
In South Korea, Tillerson said
Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically-prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.
He added, in response to a question, that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before negotiations can begin. Hardliners took a similar position with Iran. It did not work there, and it has less chance of working with North Korea, which actually has nuclear weapons and sees them as essential to its continuing existence. He also said that “all options are on the table,” which is a threat of military action, again, ineffective in past situations.
Not clear how he squares this with his comment about fewer wars, unless he believes that speaking loudly about the US’s military might will cow the North Koreans. That’s never been an effective strategy, either.
Photo: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, answers questions during a joint news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida after their talks in Tokyo on March 16. (Pool photo by Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)