North Korea nuclear crisis

Trump and Tillerson play word games on talks with North Korea

Donald Kirk says the US secretary of state’s remarks on talks with Pyongyang were evidently for show, as neither North Korea nor Washington appears interested in meeting the other’s conditions for dialogue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 4:43pm

US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just can’t seem to get their stories straight when it comes to North Korea.

One minute Tillerson is saying the US is ready to talk to North Korea any time, no “preconditions” needed; the next, the White House is issuing a statement saying, forget it, “now is not the time for talks”.

So what’s going on? Tillerson’s remarks seemed to open the door to dialogue, but analysts say they were mainly for show. He had to have known, when he uttered them at a session of the influential Atlantic Council in Washington, that North Korea is not going to agree to talks no matter what he says.

That’s because the North Koreans insist that the United States first recognise North Korea as a nuclear power. Then maybe Kim Jong-un will be interested in talks on a “peace treaty” conditioned on US withdrawal of all its troops.

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So, really, when the White House appears to be contradicting Tillerson’s display of openness, it’s all a word game. The US and North Korea may be communicating through “the UN channel” with Joseph Yun, the State Department’s lead negotiator on North Korea, talking to some North Korean diplomat from the North’s UN mission in New York, but those conversations are not really going anywhere.

Tillerson’s show of willingness to talk was polite, charming, highly diplomatic – and largely superficial. His idea was, sure, “let’s meet”, he told his audience, “and we can talk about the weather”.

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Sounds simple, but was he serious or just being slightly satirical when he remarked, “We can talk about the size of the table”? He seemed to be making fun of some of the talks about talks that have gone on over the years at which the issue was whether the table should be round or square and who sat at what end.

In fact, after the White House poured cold water on the whole idea of talks, vowing not to “repeat the failed policies of the past”, the State Department quickly fell into line. US policy remains “exactly the same” was the word. Talks could happen any time North Korea wants to talk about “peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

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Talk about talks, though, consumes much of the US conversation about North Korea. Soft-lining analysts seem to believe all the US needs to do is arrange a few conversations and the North Korean nuclear threat will go away.

To the contrary, however, realists say the US and South Korea both have to increase their military strength to demonstrate their ability to stand together against North Korean threats.

“If we’re going to start talking,” Wallace Gregson, a retired marine lieutenant general, said at a dinner, “we need to talk from a position of strength.”

Gregson, who visited South Korea many times while commander of all US marines in Japan, noted one consideration that contradicts all of North Korea’s demands for recognition as one of the world’s nuclear powers.

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“Talking,” he said, “doesn’t mean we recognise North Korea as a nuclear state.” North Korea, of course, is not going to negotiate unless its status as a nuclear-armed state is fully recognised. That’s North Korea’s “condition”, and it’s not negotiable.

Sitting down at the table, though, would have one advantage that the North Koreans might want to consider. Negotiations “mean we’re rejecting for the time being the option of a pre-emptive strike,” said Gregson.

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Trump, however, has said repeatedly that he is not excluding the “military option”, including a pre-emptive strike on nuclear and missile facilities. He seems to want to hold out that threat as a bargaining chip that he believes adds a hard edge to the sanctions and diplomatic pressure the US is already bringing to bear.

Tillerson, as the top US diplomat, has not talked about a “military option”. In fact, realistically, there’s not much chance the US is primed to go to war with North Korea while waiting to see what Kim will do next.

The basic view is that, even if Kim orders a seventh nuclear test or a few more missile shots, the US will not go beyond demands for ever tighter sanctions. The only thing that could trigger a US military response, it’s widely believed, is an attack on a US base, whether in South Korea, Japan or Guam.

Nobody thinks Kim will go that far, knowing the likely US response, even though a diplomatic solution appears equally remote.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea