Can Tillerson Crack North Korea?

Rex Tillerson on March 7, 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Department of State

Washington must present a credible threat to Pyongyang, while leaving the door open to talks.

The diplomatic hat trick the Trump administration needs to pull off is finding a solution that can stop the growth of the North Korean threat, rebuild cooperation with Beijing and gain support from U.S. allies, particularly a new South Korean government. That’s a very tall order, especially since the overwhelming temptation in Washington will be to double down on sanctions, including measures against Chinese banks and businesses that have ties with North Korea, and to ratchet up rhetoric about military options for eliminating Pyongyang’s WMD threat. If that’s all Secretary Tillerson brings to Asia, his mission will fail. He will only create more running room for Pyongyang to move forward with its nuclear and missile programs by making cooperation between Washington and Beijing even more difficult to achieve.

The smart move would be to defuse tensions while laying the groundwork for a strategy that combines threats with leaving the door open a crack for renewed dialogue with North Korea. The first two stops on his trip—Tokyo and Seoul—will provide him with an opportunity to pledge Washington’s firm commitment to their security. But the real centerpiece of Secretary Tillerson’s trip will be Beijing. China’s public proposal last week that the United States suspend its joint military exercises—a key demand by North Korea—in return for Pyongyang suspending its nuclear and missile tests—a move that would serve Washington’s interests—signals that it is willing to play an active, even positive role in avoiding a “head-on collision,” in the words of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. While the Trump administration quickly rejected the proposal, rather than just leaving the matter there, Secretary Tillerson should pick up the diplomatic gauntlet.

Caution, always the watchword when dealing with North Korea, should be reflected in the secretary’s counterproposal. Rather than dive headlong into new negotiations, step one should be “talks about talks”: unconditional preliminary discussions to see if North Korea is willing to put its nuclear weapons program on the table. “Unconditional” is the key word. While the United States has insisted in the past that North Korea agree ahead of time to focus on giving up its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s view is that talks should be held without preconditions. There seems to be little if no downside in adopting that approach, since the North Koreans understand that their program will be Washington’s number one topic for discussion. Step two in this process will be a decision by President Trump and Kim Jong-un, based on the results of these preliminary talks, whether formal negotiations should resume. If North Korea proves willing to address Washington’s WMD concerns, formal negotiations can start. If North Korea is not serious, the United States should then move on to putting greater diplomatic pressure on China, enacting new sanctions, and taking further measures to protect Seoul and Tokyo.

Whether the Trump administration adopts this approach or just presses the policy default button—more sanctions and military measures—is the $64,000 question. Consequential secretaries of state solve the thorniest and most important national security problems through patient, skillful diplomacy and negotiations. Fair or not, Secretary Tillerson has been pilloried by the press and pundits as missing in action. This sensitive diplomatic mission offers him an opportunity to show his mettle. The last thing Washington needs, at a time when America’s global leadership and position in Asia is under challenge, is for Secretary Tillerson to leave the region empty-handed, or in worse shape than he found it.

Joel S. Wit is a Senior Fellow at the US-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and founder of the 38North website. Richard Sokolsky recently retired after 37 years in the Department of State.  From 2005-2015 he was a member of the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning.  He is currently a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Image: Rex Tillerson on March 7, 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Department of State

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