Note: This post updates a version posted on December 13, 2017.
When I first watched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s outing at the Atlantic Council, it struck me as the most detailed formulation of US policy on the DPRK to date. Yet two fundamental problems quickly became apparent. The first had to do with confusion about preconditions and what “talks for talks” would actually look like. But the more fundamental problem was whether Tillerson was speaking for anyone other than himself. The very next day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointedly noted that President Trump’s view of North Korea policy had not changed. Did that mean that Tillerson’s remarks were not a departure to the policy he had already laid out, and that we should therefore continue to listen to Tillerson? Or did it reflect White House pique and a reversion to the president’s shape-shifting views, with their denigration of negotiations and greater likelihood of unilateral use of force? (On the latter, Lindsay Graham in an interview at the Atlantic now puts his subjective probabilities of a unilateral US strike on North Korea at 30 percent). It didn't take long to find out that the latter interpretation was correct, as leaks quickly surfaced on White House unhappiness.
Here are some of the many things that the secretary got right and that were outlined with some nuance and detail:
- There is significant strategic value to the US-China relationship in cooperating successfully on the North Korean issue.
- Whatever interim steps might be necessary, the ultimate US goal remains unchanged: the CVID formula of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program.
- The overall strategy is one of coercive diplomacy, with the main focus of US policy on increasing sanctions pressure on the regime and seeking wider Chinese commitments, including with respect to oil shipments.
- Nonetheless, the United States continues to acknowledge the implicit deal from Mar-a-Lago: that Chinese cooperation on sanctions is contingent on a stated US willingness to talk.
- The United States also remains committed to the “four nos,” with some subtle clarifications: that the United States does not seek regime change, regime collapse, or an accelerated unification of the Korean Peninsula. Tilllerson also said that the United States does not “seek a reason to send our own military forces north of the demilitarized zone,” and if we did, forces would quickly retreat back across that line when the mission was accomplished.
- In passing, Tillerson also provided confirmation that the Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been used for discussions of contingency planning and that China was undertaking such planning unilaterally with respect to possible refugee flows. If the North Koreans did not already know that, it was probably the most interesting moment of his talk.
The subsequent confusion centered first on the issue of preconditions and what the talks would seek to accomplish. Exploratory talks or so-called “talks-about-talks” with no preconditions are relatively costless, and in fact North Korea point man Joe Yun is probably already conducting them; he recently attended a CSCAP meeting in Thailand with North Koreans apparently in attendance. If there are no preconditions, then the two parties are free to put anything on the table that they want. First and foremost on the agenda for the United States, Japan, and Korea will be denuclearization, whatever other issues might be added to the agenda by the North Koreans: a peace regime, sanctions relief, security guarantees.
However, if North Korea wants to hold talks-about-talks only to reveal that they have no intention of discussing their weapons programs, or that they want to be recognized as a nuclear power, then the number of such exploratory meetings will be exactly one. What is the point?
This is exactly where Tillerson muddied the waters:
“We can talk about whether it's going to be a square table or a round table if that's what you're excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a roadmap of what we might be willing to work towards. I don't think—it's not realistic—to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it. And the President is very realistic about that as well.”
It’s fine to say that you are willing to sit down and have a blue-sky discussion about a possible agenda. But of course it is completely wrong to say that the United States is going to engage in serious negotiations with the North Koreans that don't include the primary issue of interest: the weapons program. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres was more straightforward on this point than Tillerson. As he put it in a December 14 press conference in Tokyo, “dialogue must have an objective…The objective for us is to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to do it in a peaceful manner.” In the ultimate sign of division, State’s own press secretary, Heather Nauert, also chimed in that "we remain open to dialogue when North Korea is willing to conduct a credible dialogue on the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."
Reiterating the US willingness to talk, and even exploiting the various channels available to the United States to sound out the North Koreans, is fine and we should be doing it aggressively. But it is not a “precondition” that talks need to be focused on issues of fundamental interest to the United States as well as North Korea (and for that matter to the international community as expressed collectively through a succession of UN Security Council resolutions). By Friday, Secretary Tillerson had reverted to the position that North Korea must “earn its way back to the negotiating table.”
This episode reveals two things. The first, which the Chinese know given the shabby treatment of Chinese envoy Song Tao, is that it is the North Koreans who are not interested in talking. And second is the fact that the White House and the Secretary of State seem unable to coordinate on even the most basic elements of a common strategy, a problem which only lowers the already slim chances that the North Koreans will respond until compelled to do so.