There’s a bit of a tumult going on within the US administration as to its position on negotiations with North Korea. The confusion reflects the contradictory considerations when dealing with the Pyongyang regime.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told listeners at a conference set up by the Atlantic Council that the US was willing to talk with North Korean leaders “without precondition” with the purposes of setting up a “road map” for a long-term program.
Tillerson’s willingness to reach out to North Korea confirms some of the hopefulness that the Trump administration might be able to succeed on North Korea where former administrations couldn’t. Trump, for instance, has tried to capitalize on the China angle by getting leaders in Beijing - North Korea’s biggest trading partner - to pressure the regime. But it seems that Trump’s biggest asset may be the willingness of his State Department to reach out to a country seen as one of the most hostile and dangerous toward the West in general, and the US in particular.
To be frank, there was something very refreshing about Tillerson’s words in his signature Texas drawl, essentially inviting North Korea to an open discussion. “We can talk about the weather...if that’s what excites you,” said Tillerson. In a somber realism, Tillerson added that there is no way to get the North Koreans to agree to give up their nuclear program from the get-go as they’ve “invested too much” into its development. The goal as of now according to Tillerson should be simply “meeting face-to-face.”
Tillerson’s position was in sharp contrast to the stance seemingly held by other administration officials until this point - that North Korea must come to the table ready to curb its nuclear program. It is not surprising, therefore, that the following day White House officials told media sources that "the administration is united” that negotiations will not get off the ground before “the regime fundamentally improves its behavior,” adding that this must include a solid commitment to “no further nuclear or missile tests.”
While Tillerson’s words do reflect a healthy - and necessary - openness, the position of the White House also reflects an unavoidable reality: North Korea is a radicalized totalitarian state that is likely willing to go down in a ball of nuclear flames rather than submit to the West. The constant threats of North Korea to obliterate its enemies in the region is backed up by regular missile testing and violent aggression against its neighbors which has continued through the recent period.
Many within the current administration see the key to dealing with North Korea as being strong where others were weak. North Korea built the bomb under Bush’s watch. Development of the country’s nuclear program went unabated during the Obama era. This sentiment has certainly been expressed by the president with his fiery threats targeting North Korea.
Tillerson also seems to have been brought in line after expressing his divergent opinion. In a recent press release, State Department officials told sources that Tillerson plans to “maximize pressure” on North Korea when he attends the UN’s Security Council Ministerial Briefing regarding the country’s nuclear weapons program later this week. This essentially leaves the Secretary’s offer of talks kind of hanging. Despite this, Tillerson has likely gotten his message across: show a willingness to talk, and we can make some progress.
In truth, the only hope the US has for achieving a dialogue with North Korea may be a combination of both these stances. On the one hand, Pyongyang should understand that the US is ready to play hardball. On the other, North Korea may first need to see an outstretched hand from a country it perceives as ready to invade at any moment.
With any luck and a lot of goodwill, the administration may be able to find a balance between these two themes. It may very well produce a breakthrough in an international crisis that has plagued the world for decades.