In December, we said Tillerson’s confirmation hearing comments were likely to lead to a war – intended or not – in East Asia. His current trip to the region “confirms” he is exactly as dangerous as we warned he would be. His declaration in Seoul that the Bush / Obama policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is “over” makes clear he has no idea how to handle the admittedly crazy and reckless Kim Jong-un. As we’ve also said, no US policy towards the North will work UNLESS China goes along with it. The combustible duo of Trump & Tillerson – aka TNT – show no signs of understanding this key reality, as they continue to play stupid games with China that are predictably doomed to fail – in both the short- and long-run. There is no picture of Tillerson meeting South Korean officials because the State Department is actively trying to limit US media coverage of this debacle of a trip.
“On Friday, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson ruled out opening any negotiation with North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs,
and said for the first time that the Trump administration might be forced to take pre-emptive action
“if they elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level.
Tillerson’s comments in Seoul, a day before he travels to Beijing to meet Chinese leaders, explicitly rejected any return to the bargaining table
in an effort to buy time by halting North Korea’s accelerating testing program.
The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said on New Year’s Day North Korea was in the “final stage” of preparation for the first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US.
The secretary of state’s comments were the Trump administration’s first public hint at the options being considered —
and they made clear that none involved a negotiated settlement or waiting for the North Korean government to collapse.
Negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” he said —
a step to which the North committed in 1992, and again in subsequent accords, but has always violated.
“Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”
His warning on Friday about new ways to pressure the North was far more specific and martial sounding
than during the first stop of his three-country tour, in Tokyo on Thursday.
His inconsistency of tone may have been intended to signal a tougher line to the Chinese before he lands in Beijing on Saturday.
It could also reflect an effort by Tillerson, former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to issue signals in a region where American commitment is in doubt.
Almost exactly a year ago, when Trump was still a presidential candidate, he threatened in an interview with The New York Times to pull troops back from the Pacific region
unless South Korea and Japan paid a greater share of the cost of keeping them there.
During Tillerson’s stops in South Korea and Japan, there was no public talk of that demand.
On Friday afternoon, after visiting the Demilitarized Zone and peering into North Korean territory —
in what has become a ritual for American officials making a first visit to the South —
Tillerson explicitly rejected a Chinese proposal to get the North Koreans to freeze their testing,
in return for the US and South Korea suspending all annual joint military exercises, which are now underway.
Tillerson argued a freeze would essentially enshrine “a comprehensive set of capabilities” North Korea possesses that already pose too great a threat to the US and its allies,
and he said there would be no negotiation until the North agreed to dismantle its programs.
Tillerson ignored a question about whether the Trump administration would double down on the use of cyberweapons against the North’s missile development,
a covert program that President Barack Obama accelerated early in 2014, which has so far yielded mixed results.
Instead, Tillerson referred vaguely to a “number of steps” the US could take — a phrase that seemed to embrace
- much more vigorous enforcement of sanctions,
- ramping up missile defenses,
- cutting off North Korea’s oil,
- intensifying the cyberwar program
- and striking the North’s known missile sites.
The rejection of negotiations on a freeze would be consistent with the approach taken by Obama,
who declined Chinese offers to restart the so-called six-party talks that stalled several years ago
unless the North agreed at the outset that the goal of the negotiations was the “complete, verifiable, irreversible” dismantling of its program.
But classified assessments of the North that the Obama administration left for its successors included a grim assessment by the intelligence community:
North Korea’s leader, Kim, believes his nuclear weapons program is the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime —
and will never trade it away for economic or other benefits.
The assessment said that the example of what happened to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime leader of Libya, had played a critical role in North Korean thinking.
Colonel Qaddafi gave up the components of Libya’s nuclear program in late 2003 — most of them were still in crates from Pakistan — in hopes of economic integration with the West.
Eight years later, when the Arab Spring broke out, the US and its European allies joined forces to depose Colonel Qaddafi,
who was eventually found hiding in a ditch and executed by Libyan rebels.
Among many experts, the idea of a freeze has been favored as the least terrible of a series of bad options.
Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear expert who worked on Obama’s National Security Council, and Toby Dalton wrote recently in Politico:
“A temporary freeze on missile and nuclear developments sounds better than an unconstrained and growing threat.
It is also, possibly, the most logical and necessary first step toward an overall agreement between the U.S. and North Korea.
But the risk that North Korea will cheat or hide facilities during a negotiated freeze is great.”
William J. Perry, secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, argued on Friday
it was no longer realistic to expect North Korea to commit to dismantling or surrendering its nuclear arsenal.
The Trump administration, he said, should instead focus on persuading the North to commit to a long-term freeze,
in which it suspends testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and pledges not to sell or transfer any of its nuclear technology.
“I see very little prospect of a collapse,” he added.
“For eight years in the Obama administration, and eight years in the Bush administration, they were expecting that to happen.
As a consequence, their policies were not very effective.”
Tillerson Imitating China & Egypt In Freezing Out Media Coverage
In Asia, on his first major trip overseas as secretary of state, Tillerson has been heavily scripted in his few public comments,
and he has gone out of his way to make sure he is not subject to questions beyond highly controlled news conferences, at which his staff chooses the questioners.
In a breach of past practice, he traveled without the usual State Department press corps, which has flown on the secretary’s plane for roughly half a century.
That group of reporters, many of them veterans of foreign policy and national security coverage, use the plane rides
to try to get the secretary and other top State Department officials to explain US policy.
Tillerson’s aides first said their plane was too small to accommodate the press corps and later said they were experimenting with new forms of coverage —
then they opened a seat for a reporter from the web-based Independent Journal Review, which is aimed at younger, conservative-leaning readers.
The site’s reporters have never traveled with the secretary before.
That decision is a striking departure for the State Department.
Last May, State Department officials protested when Egypt’s military leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
blocked pool reporters traveling with Secretary John Kerry from entering the presidential palace,
and China frequently imposes similar restrictions to avoid unwanted questions to the Chinese leadership.
Tillerson now appears to be using similar tactics during his travels.”