USA Foreign Policy

Why Tillerson’s tough talk on N. Korea was likely a message to China

modes of thought

Analysts doubt whether Beijing is prepared to change its stance that the US should engage in direct talks.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks at South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se during a news conference in Seoul on March 17, 2017.
Jung Yeon-Je pool photo/Reuters
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement in South Korea Friday that military action against an increasingly threatening North Korea is “on the table” was rattling – and perhaps that was the intent.

With Mr. Tillerson set for talks in Beijing Saturday, the point of raising the prospect of using force to address the North’s advancing nuclear threat may have been as much to send a signal to the region as anything else.

That message – that the new US administration intends to be more aggressive and won’t just stand by as Pyongyang advances its nuclear weaponry – was intended perhaps as much as a discussion opener with Chinese officials, some regional experts say, as it was to put the North on notice.

“Presumably this was directed at the Chinese as much as anyone else,” says James Walsh, an expert in nuclear security issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“There’s this Washington consensus that we need to threaten the Chinese so they get on board with pressuring North Korea more,” he adds. “I just don’t think it’s going to work.”

To be sure, Tillerson offered plenty of caveats to the eventual use of force, listing the range of options the US has for getting tough with the North before things would ever come to blows.

“Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict,” the chief US diplomat said. “We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures,” he said, adding that “we have many, many steps we can take before we get to” military action – steps he said the US hopes “will persuade North Korea to take a different course of action.”

Tillerson may have also wanted to establish the fact that there’s a new sheriff in Washington, in case anyone needed a reminder. “Let me be very clear – the policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said.

Tillerson was referring to former President Obama’s policy of ratcheting up pressures on the North – including the use of economic sanctions and trade restrictions aimed at hobbling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs – while waiting for the regime of Kim Jong-un to collapse.

Tweet of support

As if to underscore that point, President Trump chimed in Friday morning with a tweet: “North Korea is behaving very badly, they have been ‘playing’ the United States for years,” he wrote, adding, “China has done little to help!”

Less different from the Obama administration was Tillerson’s rejection of direct negotiations with the North – something the Chinese have been trying to get the US to return to for years. The last formal negotiations between the US and North Korea occurred toward the end of the George W. Bush administration.

For the US to return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang, Tillerson said, the North would have to first “give up their weapons of mass destruction. Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”

Trump, who was advised by a departing President Obama that North Korea was likely to be his first national security challenge, may indeed have sent Tillerson off to Asia to advise the Chinese that the US can do things it doesn’t like if Beijing doesn’t do more to pressure Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.

The US is already deploying the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea, which China considers to be an unfriendly and destabilizing action. And US officials continue to weigh so-called secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and other entities that continue to do business with the North.

China not easily swayed

But MIT’s Dr. Walsh, who has years of experience in diplomatic efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear program, says he sees little likelihood the Chinese will buckle to US pressure.

“The question is, what costs can we impose on China that would somehow be equal in weight to their fears of having a failed nuclear state on their border?” Walsh says. “We can wag our finger at them and tell them they’d better shape up, but when it comes down to it we simply can’t threaten them into taking action.

“They already think North Korea is a big problem,” he adds, “but I think they’d take some sanctions on Chinese banks over a failed nuclear state on their border.”

Others agree, saying China is unlikely to deviate from its position that the ball at this point is in the US’s court – to play ball with Pyongyang, not to bomb it.

“The Chinese will express their dissatisfaction with North Korea to Tillerson, but in the end they will simply repeat their views and their refusal to change their approach as a result of the North’s behavior,” says David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“They will state once again and for the new administration that the major problem is the US unwillingness to negotiate [with Pyongyang],” he says – “and they will repeat their view as to the undesirability of applying military force to North Korea.”

Military consequences

Not that anyone is portraying military action against the North as a cakewalk. Virtually no one believes the US or anyone else could mount a surprise attack on the North that could take out its nuclear and missile installations while also preempting counterattacks. Most experts assume that at least part of Seoul, the South Korean capital, would be devastated by artillery and other reprisals, while the 25,000 US troops in South Korea would surely be targeted.

On the other hand, doing nothing while the North perfects an ICBM capable of reaching the continental US doesn’t seem to be an option, either.

Walsh says he understands that the North’s continuing nuclear tests and missile launches are causing anxiety both in the region and in the US, but he says he still finds this to be a curious moment for the US to come out sounding intransigent and ready to use force with the North.

Noting that the Trump administration is in the midst of a policy review on North Korea, and that South Korea’s direction on the issue is in doubt until presidential elections in May, Walsh says that in his view this was a moment to lay things out with allies and partners, but otherwise to keep quiet.

“We know North Korea is listening closely to everything that’s said and they are going to feel like they need to take countermeasures,” he says. “So if you’re at a place where you’re not sure what you’re going to do, maybe it makes sense to say less rather than more.”