Misreading Tillerson

During Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Asia, David Sanger’s lede in The New York Times coming on March 17 was ominous:

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson ruled out opening any negotiation with North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs and said for the first time that the Trump administration might be forced to take preemptive action “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level.[1]

The news about no negotiations may have been music to the ears of Tillerson’s hosts in the lame-duck South Korean government, but the mere mention of preventive war, given President Trump’s reputation for recklessness, set off alarm bells elsewhere in the front-line capital.

Other news outlets took their cue from Sanger. Soon the airwaves and blogosphere were filled with portentous speculation. After all, compared to dull diplomacy, preventive war is so much more thrilling to contemplate; like Iraq—only this time with real nuclear weapons to attack. Of course, who knows where in North Korea they might be hidden.

Sanger was never one to underplay his stories, but had Tillerson “ruled out” talks and ruled in “preemption” in his so-called press availability in Seoul?

On the subject of negotiations, Tillerson seemed to allude to the Obama administration’s insistence that North Korea commit up front to denuclearization before talks could begin:

[I]n terms of talking about any kind of a freeze, I think it’s premature for that. But at this stage I’m not sure we would be willing to freeze, 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.[2]

“Premature” is not exactly a rejection of negotiating a freeze. And he did not rule that out:

So, again, conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five-party or six-party.[3]

Standing beside him, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se spoke of CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement) but Tillerson, noticeably, did not.

Muffled War Drums

What about “preemptive action” or, more precisely, preventive war? Well, Tillerson never actually uttered those words. Instead, he said:

All of the options are on the table. Certainly, we do not want to—for things to get to a military conflict. We are quite clear in that, in our communications. But obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table. But we are hopeful that, by taking these steps—and we have many, many steps we can take before we get to that point—we hope that that will persuade North Korea to take a different course of action. That is our desire.[4]

War, in short, lay way down a long road—if ever—and the policy review under way in Washington has reportedly already ruled out “preemptive action”—for now.

The talk of war was also at odds with the reassuring words Tillerson had uttered in Tokyo the day before:

North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea.[5]

Tillerson’s target audience for his remarks in Seoul seemed to be in Beijing, where he was heading next. Some reporters like Jane Perlez of the Times and Anne Gearan and Anna Fifield of The Washington Post grasped that essential point.[6]

President Trump’s policy, if there was any, resembled President Obama’s, if there was any—to push the Chinese to step up pressure on Pyongyang:

Diplomatic pressures will be one stream of such endeavors, but there could be other types of efforts.[7]

That seemed in keeping with Trump’s tweet in the immediate aftermath of Tillerson’s remarks to the press:[8]

Tillerson acknowledged as much on March 18 in his only interview during the trip, which was made available to the press. When asked if Trump’s tweet complicated his diplomacy, he replied:

No, it’s consistent with the discussions I had with the president before I left on this trip. I had a very good conversation with the president on the approach that I felt was necessary with North Korea, including all of the parties that we think have to be a part of this. So, I did not know that he was going to tweet anything out, but the message that he sent out was very consistent with the message that I’ve been delivering so far in Tokyo and in Seoul. And I don’t think it will come as any surprise to the Chinese government that we do not view that they have ever fully used all of the influence available to them to cause the North Korean regime to rethink its pursuit of these weapons, and that’s some of what I’ll be talking with the Chinese government about as well is, you know, they need to understand: what are they willing to do? How far are they willing to go? Can this be an area of mutual cooperation between two great powers to bring peace and stability to the Korean peninsula? And let’s be great powers. Let’s denuclearize the peninsula. That has been China’s stated policy for more than two decades—is a denuclearized Korean peninsula. They need to help solve this.[9]

Caught in the shoals between the President’s injunction and the need to keep a diplomatic option open, Tillerson had a tricky course to steer.

The problem is, any delay in negotiations, a resort to tougher sanctions and the hint of war could provoke Pyongyang to conduct more missile and nuclear tests and could cause a breach with a soon-to-be elected government in Seoul.

Cooperation with China also misconstrues North Korea’s purpose in seeking talks with the United States: to end US enmity and reduce dependence on Beijing.

No Mind Meld in Beijing

(Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People's Republic of China)
(Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China)

If Tillerson’s aim was to stampede the Chinese into tightening sanctions, there is no sign that he succeeded in Beijing.

China was well aware that North Korea is open to talks—but not on US terms: that it first commit to denuclearization.

In a joint “press availability” with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on March 18, Tillerson put the emphasis on China’s support for stepped-up pressure to compel the North to accept that goal:

Foreign Minister Wang has agreed that we will work together to see if we cannot bring the government in Pyongyang to a place where they want to make a different course—make a course correction and move away from their development of their nuclear weapons.[10]

Wang’s reaction seemed to echo the longstanding Chinese stance that the Americans and the North Koreans had made the problem and it was up to them solve it:

I would like to bring to your special notice here is the fact that while all Security Council resolutions related to the DPRK have mapped out a series of increasingly tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, they have also at the same time included clear provisions calling for efforts to resume the talks, to de-escalate the tension, and to safeguard stability of the peninsula. Therefore, it is obliged upon all parties to implement the sanctions and restart the talks at the same time.[11]

In Tillerson’s view, past negotiations had failed:

We noted that efforts made over the last 20 years have so far not succeeded in curbing the threat posed by North Korea’s illegal weapons programs.[12]

Wang had a very different take, one closer to the negotiating record:

The entire course of trying to seek a solution to the Korean peninsula nuclear issue up to date has both had successes and failures and both successful experience and hard lessons. …The situation we face today is precisely caused by the very fact that the Six-Party Talks has ground to a halt and there was no means for diplomatic and political dialogues.[13]

Wang implied that there had been a meeting of minds on implementing Security Council sanctions and entering into negotiations:

As Mr. Tillerson has said just now, both of us are firmly committed to the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and we are both ready to comprehensively and strictly implement the Security Council resolutions. And we both hope to find ways to restart the talks…[14]

Tillerson said nothing about finding ways to restart talks.

No ‘Big Media Access Person’

Was Sanger inspired to interpret Tillerson’s remarks by administration officials who whispered in his ear?

In Sanger’s view, the fact that that did not happen was the problem. In an article the next day, he had the effrontery to lecture how the inexperienced Tillerson could benefit by taking reporters along, the next time he traveled abroad:

Rex W. Tillerson, the new secretary of state, offered the diplomatic understatement of the month on Saturday when he told the sole reporter he permitted on his airplane: “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”

Perhaps, by breaking with a half-century of past practice and flying off without the regular State Department correspondents on board, Mr. Tillerson was hoping to continue to operate in a style that worked well for him as chief executive of Exxon Mobil. In that job, he could negotiate complex oil and gas deals behind closed doors and then inform his board of directors and shareholders afterward.

Certainly, his predecessors at the State Department have all wished for more time, space and secrecy to work through some of the world’s knottiest problems. The North Korea crisis that dominated this trip is a prime example of one that, if mishandled, could easily veer into war.

Yet long experience teaches that foreign policy is rarely made in the kind of media-free bubble that Mr. Tillerson wants. …

The group that has covered the State Department is heavy with former foreign correspondents and war correspondents who have lived around the world, have sources in foreign capitals and write books about the global challenges the country faces. Their hotel-bar conversations have been known to run to wonkish topics like deterrence theory.

So it might not be surprising that Mr. Tillerson doesn’t want them in the back of his airplane, talking to his staff and probing how the new administration’s approach to North Korea and China might differ from what predecessors tried.[15]

Yet the novice secretary of state may have proved defter at delicate diplomacy than some seasoned reporters.


[1] David E. Sanger, “Secretary of State Rejects Talks with North Korea on Nuclear Program,” New York Times, March 18, 2017, p. A-8.

[2] US Department of State, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Remarks with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se Before Their Meeting, Seoul, March 17, 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] US Department of State, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson Press Availability with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Tokyo, March 16, 2017.

[6] Jane Perlez, “As U.S. Shifts on Korea, China Holds Cards,” New York Times, March 18, 2017, p. A-1; Anne Gearan and Anna Fifield, “Tillerson Says ‘All Options Are on the Table’ When It Comes to North Korea, Washington Post, March 19, 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Andrew Buncombe, “Donald Trump Says North Is Behaving ‘Very Badly’ and China Is Not Helping,” The Independent, March 17, 2017.

[9] Eric McPike, “Transcript: Independent Journal Review’s Sit-Down Interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson,” March 18, 2017.

[10] U.S. Department of State, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Remarks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a Press Availability,” Diaoyutai, Beijing, March 18, 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] David E. Sanger, “‘I Personally Don’t Need’ Press Access, Tillerson Says, but Reality May Intervene,” New York Times, March 20, 2017, p. A-14.

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