Getting coercive diplomacy right is hard. You need to simultaneously deploy pressure while also credibly committing to negotiations that will—of necessity—involve concessions. Yet even admitting that diplomacy is hard, administration messaging on North Korea has been pretty difficult to follow. My simple solution, which I hit on in May following a solid performance at the UN: listen to Secretary Tillerson (the signal) and screen out the rest (the noise).
What is the noise? Frustration with China’s posture on North Korea is an occupational hazard, but publicly calling China out in the fashion the president has in recent tweets is counterproductive. Sometimes clichés capture the heart of an issue: ever heard of the concept of “face”? If you have any doubts about the costs of a public campaign, see not only the tough question on the subject at Tillerson’s press briefing but the predictably uncooperative Chinese reaction at the UN and the roundly dismissive Xinhua editorial, parsed by the New York Times. Second, tough talk is risky too. It’s fine to say that all options are on the table, because it is a statement of fact. But elliptical comments to the effect that “the time for talking is over” (Ambassador Haley at the UN) not only run the paper tiger risk but can even be destabilizing. And finally, saying that we are not seeking negotiations—as Vice President Pence did in the spring—is simply counter to what we are in fact seeking, which is precisely to get back into discussions on how to roll back North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
So what is the signal? The signal is what Tillerson is saying. The text of his comments on North Korea at his wide-ranging press availability is reproduced in full below. But the short answer is that he has outlined in somewhat more detail the strategy that he rolled out at the UN Security Council in May. Whatever the messaging, it is not incoherent and here are the bullets, with some nuance on a few points:
- The US is operating on a shortened timeline, but recognizes that there are not good options.
- Strategic patience is basically alive and well, rechristened “peaceful pressure.”
- The Secretary assured not only North Korea, but China. The president’s tweets notwithstanding, the US does not hold China responsible for North Korea; it only seeks greater cooperation.
- With respect to North Korea, the “four no’s” are working their way into administration statements: “we do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.”
- The idea that the US is unwilling to talk with the North Koreans is simply false. The only precondition that the US has held on to is that the negotiations need to include the ultimate objective of denuclearization. But this can clearly be joined with wider objectives such as a peace regime and economic incentives, to which Tillerson alludes. In Tillerson’s formulation: “We don't think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they're going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive.”
- Here is where one bit of nuance is important. Clearly, formal negotiations would need to be bound by this constraint, which is nothing more than allowing any and all parties to bring issues of interest to the talks. Note that it does not even rule out some interim agreement were the ultimate objective acknowledged. But I would urge that this formal nod to denuclearization should not hinder the development of bilateral channels to the North, whether through New York or Seoul. Although I thought that the Moon administration’s initiative to go straight to military talks was a stretch, we should not be trying to veto whatever the Moon administration seeks to do to open a channel. Nor should South Korea fret if the US is able to get the New York or other channels going.
- Finally, a second piece of nuance. The one addition to the mix is that the Trump administration—thanks in part to Congress—is more likely than the Obama administration to move toward secondary sanctions against Chinese entities if cooperation fails. But even this was soft-pedaled by Tillerson, and will presumably unfold only as diplomacy around the issue probes how Chinese and US actions might be coordinated. My favored course of action: quietly present Beijing with information on firms engaged in large-scale, service-providing trade. It is almost certain that some of these groups are skirting not only multilateral sanctions but Chinese law as well.
Will any of this work? We all know the chances are slim, and it is right to talk—and prepare—for a containment world. But it is wrong to say that the United States is without a strategy (thanks, as the Secretary points out, to the work of those holding the fort, such as Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton and Ambassador Joseph Yun). The problem is different. Where are the North Koreans?
From Secretary Tillerson Press Availability, August 1
One of the first threats we were confronted with upon entering office is North Korea, and it was the first policy area that we felt an urgency to deal with. And I think, as many of you have watched over the last several months, that threat has materialized in the ways that we expected it would. And that's why early on we identified it as a very urgent matter, and the North Koreans have certainly proven the urgency of that to us.
We initiated a sustained and continued intensified campaign on what I like to call peaceful pressure, because the options available to us, I think as all of you well understand, are limited, and particularly if we think we are operating under a short period of time. So we felt the appropriate thing to do first was to seek peaceful pressure on the regime in North Korea to have them develop a willingness to sit and talk with us and others but with an understanding that a condition of those talks is there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less to the homeland.
In doing so, we've sought to partner with China. China does account for 90 percent of economic activity with North Korea. The Chinese have been very clear with us that we share the same objective, a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. They do not see it in their interest for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, just as we do not see it in anyone's interest. China has ways that they can put pressure on and influence the North Korean regime because of this significant economic relationship that no one else has.
We've been very clear with the Chinese we certainly don't blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea. Only the North Koreans are to blame for this situation. But we do believe China has a special and unique relationship because of this significant economic activity to influence the North Korean regime in ways that no one else can.
And that's why we continue to call upon them to use that influence with North Korea to create the conditions where we can have a productive dialogue. We don't think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they're going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive. So that's really what the objective that we are about is.
We have reaffirmed our position towards North Korea, that what we are doing, we do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we're trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point, they will begin to understand that and that we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea, but that will then promote economic prosperity throughout Northeast Asia.
This is going to be a continued effort to put ever greater pressure on the North Korean regime because our other options, obviously, are not particularly attractive.
Now, in saying that, I want to - I want to acknowledge a couple of people, and I'm going to give some credit to people as I go through this. These first six months, we've been carrying out this activity, as you know, with largely people in acting assistant secretary positions, using our ambassadors, the strength of the organization, and I'm quite proud of what we've accomplished. In dealing with North Korea, Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton and Ambassador Joseph Yun have been stellar in helping us develop these policies and carry them out. Susan Thornton also has been key to our relationship with China, and I think it's important that everyone understand that North Korea does not define the relationship with China.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. Thank you for being here. We've talked about North Korea. You've talked about North Korea today, the threat. And if you could respond to the fact that as you try to deal with this, and you talk about a dialogue and you talk about the Chinese relationship goes beyond this, the President on Twitter has been very critical of China in the last 48 hours. How complicated is it for you to do your job with sometimes the President, the Commander-in-Chief, contradicting U.S. foreign policy on Twitter? How helpful would it be - and will it be - with John Kelly now as Chief of Staff? And would you like to see a more orderly system coming out of the White House in terms of communications? Does that also extend to --
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think --
QUESTION: -- the use of social media?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think the selection of John Kelly as the Chief of Staff was a brilliant selection. I did not know General Kelly before taking up my responsibilities here, but he was the first secretary that I worked with the most closely with because of the situation in Mexico, and we felt the need for he and I to get involved immediately. He has been a wonderful partner, interagency partner, he is someone who I have a great deal of trust and confidence in, and I think it is - he is going to serve the President well. And obviously, the President I think is looking for things to be different or he would not have selected someone like John Kelly to be chief of staff.
I think, with respect to how we conduct foreign policy in the - in light of the fact that the President communicates the way he does, as I explained to the people in this building, look, it's just like anything else. It's part of the environment in which we work. We'll adapt to it. We'll adapt to it. There's a lot of unexpected things that happen to us in the world of diplomacy and we know how to adapt to that, we know to work with it, and so I don't view it as an obstacle, a hindrance, or as an assistance. Whatever the President chooses to express, he expresses, and then that's information to everybody, us included.