Listen to Tillerson II: Details from Susan Thornton Press Brief



In a recent post, I tried to parse the meaning of Secretary Tillerson’s recent comments on North Korea and argued that they are the coherent signal of the administration’s strategy amidst noise coming from the Vice President, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley and the President’s own tweets. Recently, we got some additional detail from Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton, whose press brief on Secretary Tillerson's Travel to the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia turned into a Q and A devoted almost entirely to North Korea (all of the relevant portions on North Korea are reproduced below. There were a few nuggets that expand on what State thinks we should be doing.

First, Thornton’s comments underlined that the administration does not believe contact at the level of the Secretary is currently warranted, given that it was at least theoretically possible for Tillerson to meet with Ri Yong-ho at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila. Second, it looks like the diplomatic pressure of the “peaceful pressure” strategy might include a campaign to oust North Korea from the ARF altogether. I am not sure this makes sense, particularly if the meeting provides an opportunity for North Korea to hear a unified chorus of boos with respect to its own behavior. But the ARF platform does admittedly allow North Korea to restate its case, and potentially make mischief given where China is moving on the issue. 

Thornton did make elliptical reference to a broader “shoe leather” campaign of getting cooperation from other countries in the region to isolate North Korea. That will no doubt include some of the measures included in UNSC resolutions with respect to the commercial use of embassies, but will also include the new mandatory sanctions that will be imposed as a result of the legislation passed last week; we will be revisiting those sanctions next week in more detail as the earlier House bill has effectively become law.

Finally, the most interesting exchanges centered on whether there is any linkage between Chinese cooperation on North Korea and the broader bilateral trade agenda, action on which now appears to be delayed. Thornton’s answer was a diplomatic “yes and no.” While disavowing any direct “transactional” linkage, she did not shy away from noting that action on North Korea will be seen as an indicator of progress in the broader relationship. Tillerson and the people at State clearly do not drive the trade agenda, but it could be useful in the context of a China that seems to be pausing. For skepticism on our reliance on China, see Joel Wit’s highly effective takedown at 38North of some of the more extreme outsourcing options. As Wit notes, it usually does not work to tell another country what you think it’s interests should be, and that is at the heart of some of the more extreme wishful thinking. Yet changing China’s mind is another issue, and we are about to run the experiment over whether expansive secondary sanctions will have that effect, or any effect at all.   


 Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton

On Secretary Tillerson's Travel to the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia

 Via Teleconference

August 2, 2017

[Introduction on the Secretary’s travel, followed by Q and A]

QUESTION:  Hi there.  This is a - slightly left of center, but this is related to what the administration is doing regarding North Korea.  I wondered if you could confirm reports that the Trump administration is planning trade measures to force China to crack down on intellectual property theft, and whether this will in any way hinder or impact cooperation with China on North Korea.

MS THORNTON:  Well, I think there were some news articles about some kind of trade action this morning, but I don't think I have anything official for you on that, and don't have any further comment.  We do have a lot of conversations with the Chinese about a whole range of trade and investment and other economic issues, and intellectual property rights is one that is a perennial favorite in those talks, and we talk to the Chinese about IPR violations and our concerns about those at every opportunity that we have to raise our concerns, and have made some progress over the years, but I think many of us who have been looking at this issue feel that the progress remains insufficient and needs to continue to be worked on.  But I don't have any specifics for you on this thing that you raised.

MS NAUERT:  Okay.  Let's go on to the next question, please.

OPERATOR:  And that's from Josh Lederman, AP.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hey, thanks for doing this.  So Secretary Tillerson said yesterday that the goal of applying pressure to North Korea is to develop a willingness for them to sit and talk with us.  But I know you guys have all said the conditions aren't there yet.  So I'm wondering how the Secretary will approach the presence of North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in Manila, as North Korea has announced.  Will he avoid the foreign minister?  Is there any chance that they might find a moment to interact, even informally, on the sidelines of ASEAN?

MS THORTNON:  Yeah.  So I think, as you said, the Secretary was very clear yesterday in his discussion of North Korea that we are seeking to exert pressure on the North Korean regime in order to change their calculus about what - being willing to seriously discuss with us the abandonment of their nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which are prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions and other agreements.

So I think basically what we're trying to do is galvanize this pressure and isolate North Korea so that it can see what the opportunity cost is of developing these weapons programs, and that, we hope, will have the effect of bringing the regime in Pyongyang to the realization that it - they're just not worth keeping and that they would enter into a serious discussion with the international community about how to abandon what the process would be for giving up those weapons and what could they expect to gain from that decision.  So that is very much what we hope to see unfold in the future.  But that is - as I mentioned, it's in the future.  As of right now, we don't see any indication that the North Koreans are willing to enter into such a serious discussion with us, and we have said that it's important now to create the conditions for them to make this change in their mind about their dedication to these weapons programs.

So I think right now we're still in the stage of elevating pressure on the North Korean regime, elevating their feeling of isolation.  North Korea is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is one of the ministerial meetings that will be convening in Manila.  They are not a member of the East Asia Summit, which is only 18 countries.  The ASEAN Regional Forum is a broader grouping of countries in the region, and it's aimed at conflict prevention types of discussions and meetings and capacity-building.

So the North Koreans have been included in the ASEAN Regional Forum and have attended on an annual basis.  I think what we would expect to see this year at the meeting would be a general chorus of condemnation of North Korea's provocative behavior and pretty serious diplomatic isolation directed at the North Korean foreign minister.

MS NAUERT:  Okay, thank you, Susan.  Next question, please.

OPERATOR:  And that's from David Brunnstrom, Reuters News.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you.  Thank you very much.  I mean, just to follow up on that last question, can you just say - are you saying that the Secretary will not be meeting under any circumstances with the North Korean foreign minister at the meeting?  And is there any plan for a bilateral meeting with the Chinese foreign minister?  And I'm wondering how they - the Secretary is going to counter perceptions in the region that the United States is not as committed as it could be in backing ASEAN countries and putting them in a position of having to find compromises with China rather than standing up to it.

MS THORNTON:  Yes, so let me be clear on the first part of the question.  The Secretary has no plans to meet the North Korean foreign minister in Manila, and I don't expect to see that happen.

On the contacts with other foreign ministers, including the Chinese, there will be a number of bilateral meetings.  We're still working out the final schedule, so I don't have anything to announce, yet, on that.  But I expect we will definitely have a chance to engage with the Chinese foreign minister while we're there and I think we'll have a chance to engage with a number of other foreign ministers there as well.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  I guess we all have North Korea on the brain.  Can you tell us if North Korea is expected to be on the Secretary's agenda when he goes to Kuala Lumpur and to Bangkok, or will that all be compartmentalized into the talks that he has in Manila?  And in particular, is he seeking anything particularly strong from Malaysia, since I believe that's where Kim Jong-un's brother was assassinated?

MS THORNTON:  Yeah, thank you.  So I know that we have been keeping a close track on the issue of the assassination, as you put it, in Malaysia, and I know that the legal proceedings and trial in connection with that case are upcoming and the Malaysians are continuing their investigation.  I'm sure that the issue of North Korea will be raised not only at the ministerial meetings in Manila but will also be raised in those bilateral contexts just because it is such a prominent security challenge now, not only in Northeast Asia, not only in Asia, but actually for the entire world.  So I think since that is such a high administration priority and since it's also on the minds of all of the leaders in Asia, that that will undoubtedly be on the agenda for the bilateral meetings as well.

QUESTION: … I did have one detail I wanted to press you on on the regional forum.  We understand that the United States had requested of some of its ASEAN partners that North Korea not be invited, as it usually is, to the regional forum.  Obviously, you've spoken today about your desire to isolate them as much as possible.  Isn't coming to this forum, even if they don't have a bilateral with the Americans, a sign that they're not as isolated as they could be?

MS THORNTON:  Yeah, well, I think we've made clear in a number of statements and I've made statements as well about our efforts to continue to promote the diplomatic isolation of the North Korean regime.  So what we've been doing is going around talking to partners about what more could they do to contribute to that increasing pressure on the regime and the increasing sort of diplomatic isolation of the regime.  And it is true that in the case of the ASEAN Regional Forum, as I mentioned, it's a preventive diplomacy, a conflict-prevention organization.  It has principles upon which membership is stipulated, and I think there wouldn't be many members of the ASEAN Regional Forum that would disagree that the North Korean regime has violated many of the principles of the ASEAN Regional Forum.

So I think what we have been sort of looking at is having a serious discussion of what it would take for a member to be suspended from this organization that is dedicated to conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy.  And I think we're going to continue to have that conversation as it regards North Korea, and I think we'll see how that develops over the coming year.  Of course, it's too late now to have that conversation since the meeting is upon us for this year, but we'll continue to explore this and continue to, I think, push the organization to think about what kinds of suspension measures or requirements or stipulations might be included in the future.

OPERATOR:  Our next question is from Bingru Wang, Hong Kong Phoenix TV.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you, Susan, for doing this.  My question is:  China has said that trade and North Korea issues are different, so they should not be discussed together.  So how are you going to address the North Korea issue with the upcoming economic sanction measure in place?

And another question:  More broadly, Trump administration has said that Asia rebalance strategy is abandoned, so what's the difference now with regarding how you engage the Asian countries?  Thank you.

MS THORNTON:  Yeah, thanks very much for that.  So I think there has been a lot of discussion - I mean, the two kind of prominent areas of discussion with China at a lot of our recent meetings have been these two topics of North Korea and what to do about the challenge that North Korea poses for the security of all of us and how we can all work together to try to bring about this change in the mind of the regime that I was talking about earlier and get them to the table to talk about giving up their weapons.  We and China have the same goal, which is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and so we share a mutual interest there and we want to find out how we can work more effectively together to bring about that change in North Korea that we would like to see.

On the issues of trade, trade has also been a prominent topic of discussion.  We've had the China - U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue here in Washington, D.C. recently that discussed the full gamut of trade and investment and economic issues, and that discussion is continuing and we've got a number of hundred-day plans in the works to negotiate resolution and show concrete progress in that relationship.

I think what you're talking about, the perceived linkage or the mentioned linkage between these two issues comes down to the question - and the Secretary talked about this at some length yesterday in his press conference - the question of what kind of relationship the U.S. and China are really going to have going forward, and can we work together to jointly resolve the key security challenge now facing Northeast Asia, which is the North Korea challenge.  And if we can work together to do that, surely we can have a productive, mutually beneficial economic relationship in which we both enjoy reciprocal and fair access to each other's markets and that this becomes a good basis for exchange between our two nations and our two peoples.  So I think it's not that they're linked in a transactional way, but they're linked in a - sort of a philosophical way if you think about the future of the relationship between the United States and China.

On the issue of the rebalance, I think that slogans are sometimes overrated or overused, but certainly, what the rebalance was trying to denote was that the U.S. is an Asia Pacific power, we're going to be engaged in the Asia Pacific region, we're a provider of security in the region, it's key to our prosperity and our economic future, and we are going to pay a lot of attention to Asia and we're going to put a lot of resources into our policy focus and our engagement and our interaction with Asia.

And so I think you've seen the engagement by all - so many high-level officials, with leaders coming here, with our high-level cabinet officials going there, with the President's trip upcoming later this fall, so I think it's really just a matter of naming it.  And I think I would say our active engagement is frankly continuing and is not going to be changing anytime soon.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Thank you for doing this.  In the question about the linkage between trade and North Korea, you said essentially, going forward, we're - we want to see if we can work together to solve the North Korea challenge.  And if so, we can have a mutually beneficial relationship on trade.  So flipping it around, though, what if you can't come to a - if the U.S. and China are not able to work together to solve the North Korea challenge, does that mean - what does that mean for the trade relationship?

MS THORNTON:  Yeah, I don't think that I mentioned that there was that kind of explicit linkage between the if we can have a good relationship on North Korea then we can have a mutually beneficial relationship on trade.  I think it's more of a holistic kind of nature of the relationship question that we're looking at in both of those cases, and they're not necessarily connected in that way; they kind of run parallel.

But on the issue of sort of how we work with China and - on North Korea, I mean, there are a lot of "if" questions out there.  I don't think I'm necessarily that enthusiastic about answering these kind of hypothetical questions, but I would sort of go back to what the Secretary was talking about yesterday with regard to how we're working with China on North Korea.  What we think we've seen today in the way of cooperation, which we have seen significant steps taken by China to increase pressure on North Korea - frankly, unprecedented steps.  And we do have indications that China is extremely concerned about North Korea and extremely unhappy with the direction things are going.  They realize that this is becoming a greater and greater threat to China's own security, and we see a growing determination on their part to take steps to try to address the situation seriously.

We think that they can do a lot more, as the Secretary mentioned yesterday; 90 percent of the North Koreans' economy is still flowing through China, so that de facto gives them more leverage than other countries with more feeble and weak economic ties to North Korea.  So we do want them to do more.  We're working with them currently to continue to step up enforcement of sanctions and to try to levy additional sanctions, so I think we have to keep working on that track.  It takes time, it takes a lot of shoe-leather diplomacy and hard work, it takes a lot of work on the part of the Chinese Government to do this, and we would like to see more action faster and more obvious and quick results.  But I think we're not giving up yet.

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