US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made remarks in Seoul Thursday that portend what seems to be a radical shift in US policy toward North Korea.
He said: “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended.” Tillerson also eliminated the possibility of negotiating with North Korea before it has “given up its weapons of mass destruction,” and did not rule out military action if the US believes Pyongyang’s weapons program advances too far. Tillerson’s statements are not as radical as they seem, but there is still no visible coherent strategy for the region.
“Strategic patience” was the Obama-era policy toward North Korea. “Strategic patience” seems similar to “doing nothing,” but that is only true in a vacuum. Obama clearly supported the US alliance with South Korea, supported the free trade agreement with South Korea, and approved the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system that got underway last week. In the new Trump era, when the President devalues the US-South Korea alliance, the Obama policy looks much more sound.
There is no chance that North Korea will eliminate its nuclear program as a precondition to negotiations. Tillerson must know this, and so he is ending the possibility of negotiations. This is also not an unreasonable proposition.
North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons — it is the only thing that keeps the regime alive. The nuclear program is even more important than the relationship with China. But even if North Korea did agree to give up its weapons, it would take an almost unimaginably intrusive inspections regime to insure that Pyongyang did not violate its obligations.
Critics may say that people said the same thing about Iran, but the situation is different for two key reasons. First, despite what you may read, the Iranian government cares about its own people. Second, Iran wanted to rejoin the international community, while North Korea prefers to hide from it.
Tillerson’s statement about a preemptive strike on North Korea presents another bad alternative. It once again calls into question America’s commitment to its alliances. The implication is that Pyongyang’s ability to reach American targets is unacceptable; but it can already strike South Korea, which we are obligated to defend.
The time for a preemptive strike ended when North Korea detonated its first nuclear device. Even if the US could guarantee the simultaneous and immediate destruction of every nuclear weapon in North Korea, there are still tens of thousands of artillery shells pointed at Seoul. It is not possible for South Korea and American forces to escape a conflict with North Korea unscathed.
From the outside, it does not look like there is an American policy on North Korea. “All options are on the table” is a normal diplomatic statement and there are two important questions that are still unanswered.
First, how well is the inter-agency process functioning? Are Tillerson’s remarks part of a well-conceived — or even poorly-conceived — foreign policy toward North Korea? Has that policy been debated and discussed among North Korea experts at the State Department, Defense Department, CIA, and other agencies, and filtered through the interagency process at the National Security Council? That so many positions in all of these agencies remain unfilled suggests no — as do Trump’s previous statements that he would speak to Kim Jong Un, and his claims that “there’s a 10% or 20% chance” he “could talk him out of having his damn nukes.”
But perhaps even more important is this: Does Tillerson speak for Trump? That, unlike Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, he has not been present at key meetings with foreign leaders, suggests that he is not necessarily “in the loop.” Tillerson’s statement in Seoul might have been more meaningful if it had come from someone else — or perhaps even in a tweet from the President.
The Korean Peninsula is the site of a tremendous amount of upheaval. South Korea’s next president may favor talks and greater economic integration with North Korea. Tillerson’s visit is also set against the backdrop of THAAD deployment, which has resulted in Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea.
Tillerson’s next stop is Beijing, where he will no doubt seek China’s help in reining in North Korea. But what incentive does China have to help an administration set on antagonizing it at every turn?
Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.