The White House and State Department issued statements on Wednesday clarifying the Trump administration’s position on talks with North Korea following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unconditional offer of talks at a forum on Tuesday.
Actually, Tillerson’s offer included one condition, which the White House echoed in its statement: the absence of further provocative missile launches or nuclear tests. The White House, speaking through a National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson quoted by CNN, added a second condition: “sincere and meaningful actions toward denuclearization.”
“We are open to the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, with the aim of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. But North Korea must first refrain from any further provocations and take sincere and meaningful actions toward denuclearization,” the NSC spokesperson said.
“As the secretary of state has said, this must include – but is not limited to – no further nuclear or missile tests. Given North Korea’s most recent missile test, clearly now is not the time,” the spokesperson added.
CNN states there are “questions as to whether a rift exists within the Trump administration over possible negotiations with Pyongyang,” although it is not all that much of a rift when the NSC explicitly supports Tillerson’s statement with one additional, admittedly quite significant, qualification. No one doubts diplomatic engagement with North Korea is desirable, and probably no one expected them to instantly leap on Tillerson’s offer and ask him to name the time and place.
CNN quotes former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Evan Medeiros’s describing the apparent distance between Tillerson and the White House as “somewhere between confusing and worrisome.”
The State Department and White House should be in lockstep when it comes to issues like negotiating with North Korea. So if the White House is not backing up Tillerson, it suggests that Tillerson himself is trying to push the White House in the direction of just getting talks started, and perhaps Tillerson doesn’t fully appreciate all the downside risks associated with talks without any kind of presteps or preconditions.
The State Department did indicate complete support for the White House position. “The policy has not changed. I just want to be very clear on that,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted on Wednesday.
Making exactly the same point as the National Security Council spokesperson that North Korea has not yet provided the “period of quiet” specified by Tillerson as his condition for holding unconditional talks, Nauert said:
We remain open to dialogue when North Korea is willing to conduct a credible dialogue on the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We are not seeing any evidence that they are ready to sit down and have those kinds of conversations right now. When somebody is shooting off ballistic missiles, when someone is conducting advanced nuclear tests, they’re not showing any kind of interest or seriousness in wanting to talk. At some point, we would like to do that, but our policy has not changed.
So far, this seems less like a major rift between White House and State than a matter of people using different words to express the same policy, exacerbated by Tillerson’s speaking in a relaxed conversational manner during his forum appearance on Tuesday. It did not help that he used the phrase “meeting without precondition” before specifying his precondition.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seemed more at odds with Tillerson than anyone else from the administration to date, although he insisted his apparent disagreement with Tillerson was a matter of the Secretary of State’s words being reported or interpreted incorrectly.
McMaster said on Wednesday:
I know there’s some reporting yesterday about Secretary Tillerson said we’re open to initiating negotiations, but those negotiations are not – or talks, you know – would be, are not an end in and of themselves, and there would be no preconditions to those – when he said there will be no preconditions, what that means is, we’re not going to alleviate, we’re not going to relieve any pressure on North Korea or give in to any demands they might make for payoffs.
“Denuclearization is the only viable objective and if we all focus on that, we have a strong chance for success,” he added.
The New York Times frames all this as “the latest example of a public rift between the president and his chief diplomat over North Korea” and cites sources who say that “White House officials were alarmed by Mr. Tillerson’s conciliatory tone.”
According to these sources, the White House is concerned Tillerson’s softer stance toward negotiations could “sow confusion among allies” after President Trump rallied them to support a hard line. The impression given is of a continuum with Tillerson at one end, ready to chat about the weather with North Korean officials if they so desire, and McMaster at the other, musing to a British think tank that maybe shipping companies that smuggle banned goods to North Korea “ought to be on notice that that might be the last delivery of anything they do for a long time, anywhere.”
The optimistic view of this continuum is that it represents mostly rhetorical differences and is a natural consequence of the administration’s desire to encourage Pyongyang to pick up the phone without giving the impression the U.S. and its allies are flinching before Pyongyang’s belligerent demands and intransigent posture. No one in the administration would consider it bad news if Tillerson suddenly gets a call from someone in the Kim regime who wants to talk about the chilly morning they had in Pyongyang.
As Obama administration Assistant Secretary of State Daniel R. Russel put it to the New York Times, “It’s very important that we not appear to be accepting North Korea’s terms for negotiations.” It is very important, but also very difficult, especially when the secretary of state’s comments at a public forum are interpreted as official pronouncements, while the President of the United States makes official pronouncements on Twitter.