What Tillerson Said



Last week, David Sanger had a puzzled piece at the New York Times about the Trump administration’s North Korea policy. “Tactic? ‘Madman Theory?’ Or Just Mixed Messages?” But mixed messages are exactly what coercive diplomacy is about. Such a strategy has been a staple of discussions of American diplomacy on the peninsula since Bill Perry first formulated the “two track” approach (For a sense of déjà vu on this, see Victor Cha’s 1999 explanation in Asian Survey, or Perry’s own discussion in a recent interview for The News Hour.) Such diplomacy can’t work unless there are both credible threats to escalate—whether economic or military—as well as credible offers to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

Needless to say, sending both of those signals at the same time is challenging. But sending either alone is also a mistake. Threats to escalate without negotiations will simply pull China back into its long-standing defensive posture, and offer the North no exit ramp. The opposite is also the case: sitting down with the North Koreans with nothing but inducements in hand is unlikely to work either. Why should North Korea negotiate if Kim Jong-un believes that his grand strategy—the byungjin line—is working? North Korea has recently rejected even the Chinese proposal for a mutual freeze to get talks going, and that requires the North to give up precisely nothing. Why would a less generous offer succeed in the absence of pressure?

The president’s intemperate remarks—“there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea…”—have rightly gotten attention, although it is arguably the gratuitous conflicts with South Korea over THAAD and the KORUS FTA that should be the principle story. We are trying to maintain a united front on North Korea, and we are arguing with Seoul about trade and who picks up the cost of missile defense?

These pointless controversies aside, Secretary Tillerson was working both sides of this strategy late last week. Although emphasizing in the first instance an escalation of economic rather than military pressure, he was also at pains to repeat that “all options are on the table.” The UN Security Council meeting was unusual in being convened in the absence of an immediately-precipitating event. It was designed to set out both some new sanctions efforts that we have not seen before, while also reiterating a willingness to talk. Not only is Tillerson saying that negotiations are the path forward; the President even went so far today as to say that under the right circumstance he would be willing to meet Kim Jong-un personally, and would even be “honored to do so.” (See Marc Noland's satirical piece on a converation between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shared over a hamburger.)

Here are the operative portions of Tillerson’s remarks to the Security Council and in other interviews, with some commentary.

Tillerson at the UN:

“I propose all nations take these three actions beginning today:

First, we call on UN member-states to fully implement the commitments they have made regarding North Korea. This includes all measures required in Resolutions 2321 and 2270. Those nations which have not fully enforced these resolutions fully discredit this body.”

Witness to Transformation: Calls of this sort make no sense if not backed up by credible information on lapses that can be brought to the attention of the parties. Yet such documentation is ample, including in the Panel of Experts reports for example on shipping and in recent reports that China might be reneging on its commitments with respect to coal shipments.

Tillerson at the UN (continued):

“Second, we call on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea. North Korea exploits its diplomatic privileges to fund its illicit nuclear and missile technology programs, and constraining its diplomatic activity will cut off a flow of needed resources. In light of North Korea’s recent actions, normal relations with the D.P.R.K. are simply not acceptable.”

Witness to Transformation: This is new, and if the US puts muscle behind the effort it could influence North Korea’s European financial operations in particular. In a recent post, I listed the countries where North Korea has embassies, and as you can imagine it is a mixed lot, with countries such as Venezuela, Iran, and Russia that are hardly likely to get on board. But those in the middle might see little gain from maintaining normal diplomatic relations if pressed by the US. Even if the marginal effect from closing any given embassy’s commercial operations is small, North Korea’s sanctions-evasion efforts are a retail business; it adds up.  

Tillerson at the UN (continued):

“Third, we must increase North Korea’s financial isolation. We must levy new sanctions on D.P.R.K. entities and individuals supporting its weapons and missile programs, and tighten those that are already in place. The United States also would much prefer countries and people in question to own up to their lapses and correct their behavior themselves, but we will not hesitate to sanction third-country entities and individuals supporting the D.P.R.K.’s illegal activities.

We must bring maximum economic pressure by severing trade relationships that directly fund the D.P.R.K.’s nuclear and missile program. I call on the international community to suspend the flow of North Korean guest workers and to impose bans on North Korean imports, especially coal.

We must all do our share, but China accounting for 90 percent of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique, and its role is therefore particularly important. The U.S. and China have held very productive exchanges on this issue, and we look forward to further actions that build on what China has already done.”

Witness to Transformation: Again, designations are highly vulnerable to what Marcus Noland calls the “whack a mole problem”: the ability of any given entity to re-form as yet another shell company, many operating offshore. These threats are not self-enforcing, and Treasury will need to name names. But the important point here is that the US is finally and publicly embracing secondary sanctions against enablers.

Marcus Noland has long made the case on this blog about why the international community should shut down North Korea’s labor exports. To say that these cannot be identified strains credulity: someone, somewhere, is stamping entry visas for platoons of North Korean workers. This source of export earnings can quite obviously be stopped, and it should be.

It is often thought that the US has a credibility problem with respect to military options. But Kim Jong-un needs to stare down the risks of escalation too. 

The key to this last bullet is clearly China’s role, where the US is trying to change the criterion for evaluating success. The issue should not be whether China does or does not enforce any particular sanction, or whether 50 additional grams of coal are or are not flowing North. The question should be whether the sanctions that China is imposing have any material effect. If China is banning coal, but making up the difference with imports of iron ore and textiles, what is the point?

Protests to the contrary, Tillerson is in fact signaling that strategic patience is alive and well: that the US is willing to wait to see what China accomplishes. At Fox News, Tillerson stated that the US was in communication with China on the issue, that China in turn was in communication with Pyongyang, and that Beijing had even signaled to the US that were a further nuclear test to be forthcoming, China would impose additional sanctions unilaterally. China scurried away from the remarks, but they seem highly plausible to me.

Reading the UN comments through the lens of new sanctions is only half the story though. In the UN speech, and even more in comments in interviews given on Thursday and Friday, Tillerson went out of his way to assure China and North Korea:

Tillerson at the UN (continued):

“Our goal is not regime change. Nor do we desire to threaten the North Korean people or destabilize the Asia Pacific region. Over the years, we have withdrawn our own nuclear weapons from South Korea and offered aid to North Korea as proof of our intent to de-escalate the situation and normalize relations. Since 1995, the United States has provided over $1.3 billion dollars in aid to North Korea, and we look forward to resuming our contributions once the D.P.R.K. begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs.”

Witness to Transformation: The implications of this statement were almost entirely overlooked in the US press. In effect, the Secretary is saying that the US stands willing to resume assistance to the North.

Tillerson (at NPR), asked about having “direct talks” with North Korea: 

“Obviously, that would be the way we would like to solve this. But North Korea has to decide they're ready to talk to us about the right agenda — and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. That's been the agenda for the last 20 years.”

Witness to Transformation: Tillerson appears to deny interest in the Chinese proposal, restated at the UN by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The proposal involves a freeze on nuclear and missile tests and US-ROK exercises to get talks going. But is Tillerson really closing the door on such a possibility? In this interview and others, including at Fox News, Tillerson underlines his interest in negotiations, which could presumably take any form as long as North Korea “reconsiders its current posture.” The US appears to be asking for little more than a commitment to the goal of denuclearization.

Finally, a brief word on military escalation. I side strongly with Perry and Bruce Klingner, who explain why pre-emption is not warranted at this time. But the press coverage of military options on the peninsula is almost wholly lacking in strategic thinking. The standard line is that if the US undertakes even a limited strike on North Korean capabilities, then North Korea would start shelling Seoul or carry through on its threats to use a nuclear weapon. But would they respond in that manner? What would the logic be of triggering OPLAN 5027 or some variant of the US-ROK war plans for the complete defeat of North Korea? It is often thought that the US has a credibility problem with respect to military options. But Kim Jong-un needs to stare down the risks of escalation too. 

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