In Response to Leon Sigal’s “Misreading Tillerson”

My former colleague Leon V. Sigal was a respected editorial writer in his years at the New York Times, and I’m always eager to read his analysis of diplomacy surrounding North Korea. But he wasn’t in the business of reporting news, and after reading his posting on 38 North about my coverage of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Seoul, I think that maybe that was a good thing.

Tillerson’s trip to Seoul came after a series of meetings in the White House about their initial approach to North Korea, which Michael Gordon and I reported on as the Secretary headed to Asia. The lede of that story, which Leon never mentioned in his lengthy analysis, read as follows:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will warn China’s leaders that the United States is prepared to step up missile defenses and pressure on Chinese financial institutions if they fail to use their influence to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, according to several officials involved in planning his first mission to Asia.

(Photo: US Department of State)
(Photo: US Department of State)

Turns out that was right. Then Tillerson stopped in Seoul, where I met up with him. To my ear, there were three elements to his message that were newsworthy, because we had not yet heard any member of the Trump administration utter them on-the-record.

The first was that the US rejected opening negotiations with the North, a decision that was made at that principals meeting we reported on. Tillerson described this decision in two ways during his brief news conference. First, as Sigal noted, he said it would be “premature’’ to open negotiations with the circumstances where they exist today, given that that would leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat, not just to the region, but to American forces, as well.”

Translation: You have to dismantle at least some of those capabilities before talks can begin.

Later, Tillerson went further. As the story read:

Negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” he said—a step to which the North committed in 1992, and again in subsequent accords, but has always violated. “Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”

Translation: Give up all your weapons, then we’ll talk to you. Given North Korea’s oft-stated declarations that it will continue to build up its arsenal, and its activities over the past 18 months, I’m perfectly happy defending the characterization of this position as a rejection of talks.

The second point Tillerson made in public, again as reflected in the lede of the story, is that “the first time that the Trump administration might be forced to take pre-emptive action ‘if they elevate the threat of their weapons program’ to an unacceptable level.”

Think about that one for a moment. If one takes the Secretary literally, the North would not need to conduct an ICBM test to prompt American action. Such action—in whatever form it took—could be prompted merely by the North’s leaders merely staying on the course they are on. Is this an empty threat? Maybe. It’s a new administration, with all new players. We don’t know. So all we can do is report what they say.

The third piece of news out of the news conference was Tillerson’s declaration that: “The policy of strategic patience has ended.” We don’t know exactly what that means, since, as Bill Broad and I revealed after conducting an eight-month long investigation, “strategic patience’’ embraced a previously-unrevealed, covert cyber program to sabotage North Korea’s missile launches. But it seemed to suggest that the Trump administration was not simply going to wait out the North Koreans.

Sigal seems to suggest that I missed the fact that Tillerson was mostly signaling to the Chinese. He might want to re-read the story. The second paragraph notes that he made his comments a day before he was headed to Beijing.

Finally, Sigal didn’t care for a “Diplomatic Notebook” I published after the trip, describing the risks any Secretary of State takes when he tosses the entire State Department diplomatic reporting team off his plane. (Tillerson is the first secretary we can find who has done this in half-a-century.) Sigal, a former journalist, complains I “had the effrontery to lecture how the inexperienced Tillerson could benefit by taking reporters along, the next time he traveled abroad.’’

Certainly I didn’t intend that notebook to be a lecture. Rather, it was an observation about a remarkable, never-before-attempted experiment by the sitting Secretary of State to create something of a media bubble around himself and his staff during his travels. The story describes many reasons he might be tempted to do so, including his newness to the job, his desire to avoid getting ahead of his mercurial boss, and his clear wariness about having to face questions that the Administration is not prepared to answer. I get all that. But as the story indicated, failure to describe the nuances of American diplomatic initiatives is not a cost-free strategy.

Bottom line: My job is to explain to readers what’s new in a new administration’s words, and its approach to a very long-running problem. I hope readers of the Times, and of 38 North, will conclude that is just what I tried to accomplish in Seoul.

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