Sunday, March 19, 2017

Can Tillerson play the bad cop?


And probably more importantly, can North Korea's only friend China bring them around to a sensible course of nuclear policy. And the unmentioned elephant in the room, can Donald Trump keep his mouth and Twitter quiet long enough to pull it off.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson ruled out on Friday 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.

Mr. 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 that North Korea was in the “final stage” of preparation for the first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

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.

“The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr. Tillerson said, a reference to the term used by the Obama administration to describe a policy of waiting out the North Koreans, while gradually ratcheting up sanctions and covert action.

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 Mr. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to issue the right diplomatic signals in a region where American commitment is in doubt.

Almost exactly a year ago, when Donald J. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Tillerson explicitly rejected a Chinese proposal to get the North Koreans to freeze their testing in return for the United States and South Korea suspending all annual joint military exercises, which are now underway.

Mr. Tillerson argued that a freeze would essentially enshrine “a comprehensive set of capabilities” North Korea possesses that already pose too great a threat to the United States and its allies, and he said there would be no negotiation until the North agreed to dismantle its programs.
Having a mad man in the White House may have a much needed influence on North Korean bullyboy Kim Jong Pudge. And denuclearizing Norh Korea is a worthy goal. But it's a thin tightrope to walk when the Mad Man is truly unhinged and the Secretary of State doesn't do nuance and has let go most of the people who could help him. And since the last 64 years have relied on an armistice to stop the shooting, it wouldn't take much to start it again.

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