Astonishing North Korea Policy Change From Tillerson

There are times when the utter confusion apparent in Donald Trump’s White House is a cause for relief. One such seems to be the case of North Korea. If one listens to Trump himself one comes away with two possible directions for US policy following the North’s latest testing of long range rockets which could reach the US itself.

The first is that the US has had enough of both diplomacy and economic sanctions, which have singularly failed to stop Kim Jong-un’s march towards a long-range offensive nuclear weapon. The implication is that other, more forceful means, must be devised.

The second version of Trump policy towards Pyongyang is that it is largely China’s failure to rein in the North which is responsible for what is painted as a major world crisis. The solution thus lies with moves against Beijing – and the one most readily available is trade. Hence China must be hit with trade sanctions for political purposes.

That both the Trump approaches are dumb should be self-evident. The threat of force is probably the braggart talk for which both Trump and Kim are both renowned. They can both be ignored. But there remains the possibility that Trump will Tweet his way into military action with the direst possible consequences.

The trade sanctions route, which Trump currently appears to favor, is self-destructive in other ways for the US. First, it takes the force out of genuine US complaints about China’s unfair trade practices. Even if the threat does make Beijing put some new economic squeeze on Pyongyang, it will not be enough to halt the missile program. Just as likely, Pyongyang will find alternative trade sources and outlets – starting with Russia, where President Vladimir Putin seems perfectly willing to help stir the cauldron.

Into the Washington confusion has now stepped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He has, rather remarkably, stated that the US does not view the North as an enemy, seek the overthrow of its regime or the near-term reunification of the peninsula. Of course he still presents the North’s nuclear and missile developments as hostility directed at the US itself. But technically a state of war still exists and there has been no progress to end it since the July 1953 Armistice – a document subsequently declared no longer valid by the North.

Is Tillerson now hinting that the only way out of the impasse may be direct talks with Pyongyang? For sure, the US position remains that there can be no peace treaty without the de-nuclearization of the North.That is simply no longer any more a possibility than that the US would itself withdraw nuclear weapons from the region. But Tillerson may prefer to imply that it is an eventual possibility to ward off pressures from Trump and his acolytes for more dangerous courses. For all the North’s paranoia, memories of the past and fears for the future, Pyongyang is fixated on eventually being recognized by the US as a legitimate state.

Kim Jong Un seems uninterested in responding to the attempts at a revival of “sunshine” diplomacy being attempted by the South’s new President, Moon Jae-in. Only Washington matters.

Other than war and trade sanctions against China, some US administration officials place emphasis on “regime change” in the belief that the fall of the Kim dynasty would bring in a regime willing to work with the US to build the economy and end nuclear ambitions. Quite how this could be achieved is not clear. Some in Washington seem to believe that China can be persuaded to help with regime change as it is not in its long-term interest to see a nuclear North. However, China has more immediate fears of regime change, ranging from chaos across its border and a flood of refugee to the possibility that the net result would be reunification with the South the dominant force and retaining its weapons. That would be the worst of all possible worlds for Beijing.

Even a North with a new Kim-less regime would be very reluctant to dismantle a nuclear and missile capability acquired at such cost to the people and seen, even by its critics, as exemplar of the strength of Korean nationalism.

The bottom line is that none of the above policies stands much hope of success. Meanwhile the actual threat to the US – or Japan or South Korea – is minimal. The Kim deterrence policy has worked. In which case Washington should simply ignore Pyongyang and focus on the challenges posed to the US by China’s trade policies and actions in the East and South China seas.

The Wall Street Journal is the latest to report what has long been apparent, the damage done to US trade policy by Trump’s ill-advised nullification of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. This time it is lower tariffs granted to Australian beef from the Japanese,to the detriment of higher-cost US farmers’ beef shipments. Now the trade pact is being put back together without the US, which if its trade negotiators had any sense would immediately rejoin it. But anything so clear-headed is simply impossible while Trump tweets away.