China’s Foreign Ministry welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s offer to talk with North Korea without preconditions on Wednesday, while the White House responded in a more ambivalent manner.
“We have noticed the remarks. It has been a consistent stance of the Chinese government to peacefully resolve the peninsula issue through dialogue and negotiation. China welcomes all efforts to ease tension and promote dialogue to resolve the problem,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
“China has proposed a dual-track approach and suspension for suspension initiative to settle the issue. We hope the United States and the DPRK will meet each other halfway and take a significant step to engage in dialogue and contact. China will continue to play a constructive role in promoting proper settlement of the peninsula issue in a peaceful way,” Lu said.
Reuters notes Lu would not directly answer questions about Tillerson’s assertion that China and the U.S. have been working out plans for securing North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction in the event of regime collapse.
The White House response to Tillerson’s comments was more ambivalent than China’s.
“The President’s views on North Korea have not changed,” insisted spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world. North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”
Japan also seems to lack enthusiasm for unconditional talks with North Korea, instead preferring to continue tough sanctions for the time being. “We have to see the effects of sanctions on life in North Korea. I heard that they are having a serious impact on everyday life. Let’s wait and see. If we were to hint anything for dialogue, we’d be losing clout,” a former Japanese diplomat told Reuters.
Some observers seized on the apparent disconnect between President Trump and his Secretary of State to suggest the firm alliance against North Korea is wavering, or that Tillerson is on his way out. Politico, for example, spiced up its report on Tillerson’s North Korea comments to note they “come amid speculation that Tillerson’s time as Secretary of State may be coming to a close.”
NPR portrays Tillerson as weak and lacking in diplomatic credibility because Trump’s hardline stance against North Korea’s nuclear weapons makes Tillerson’s breezy offer of unconditional talks seem like wishful thinking, or “posturing” as Van Jackson of New Zealand’s Victoria University put it, confessing that he “just sort of rolled my eyes” when he heard Tillerson’s address to the Atlantic Council forum on Tuesday.
“The total lack of consistency. The total inability to separate rhetoric from substance. All of it makes people throw up their hands. How can you take what Tillerson says now seriously in the context of the past 10, 11 months?” Jackson exclaimed.
The alternative view is that Tillerson is playing precisely the role Trump had in mind all along, putting himself forward as the point man for North Korea to contact when and if the pressures deployed against Pyongyang prove effective, and the Kim regime decides to negotiate what it has previously declared non-negotiable.
The BBC notes one important data point is that Tillerson’s remarks to the Atlantic Council forum did not sound like the musings of a man who thinks he will be out of a job soon. Instead, he mentioned his plans to “visit two continents next year” and acted like “a man who’s expecting to keep his job.”
Furthermore, the BBC observes that while Trump rhetorically chides Tillerson for “wasting his time” attempting to negotiate with the Kim regime, “in practice he’s gone along with Tillerson’s diplomatic strategy, for now.”
If the point of sanctions and pressure from China is to prod North Korea into making concessions, someone has to be available in Washington when Pyongyang wants to talk, and it can’t be the guy who refers to their dear leader as “Little Rocket Man.” Conversely, there is little point in announcing the Secretary of State is standing by to take Pyongyang’s call if the administration, firmly backed by the international community, doesn’t give them a reason to call. It would have to be a very compelling reason with only a few months left in the countdown to North Korea achieving intercontinental nuclear missile capability.
The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who entered office hoping to steward a major diplomatic opening to North Korea but was forced to take a harder line by Pyongyang’s belligerent actions, seems to understand this.
South Korean presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun shrewdly observed that contrary to extensive media coverage and Tillerson’s own description of his position, his offer of talks actually was not unconditional. He specified a single, eminently reasonable precondition that North Korea might be hard-pressed to meet: halting missile and nuclear bomb tests.
“They clearly understand that if we’re going to talk, we have to have a period of quiet,” as Tillerson put it.
It is worth noting that not long before Tillerson made his comments on Tuesday, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un declared his engineers would produce “more of the latest weapons and equipment” to “bolster up the nuclear force in quality and quantity.”
Also, Tillerson spoke a few weeks after both a senior Chinese diplomat—the personal envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping—and a top U.N. official visited Pyongyang and expressed guarded optimism about the possibility of negotiations resuming. “I think we have left the door ajar, and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide,” U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said after his visit.
From that perspective, Tillerson did not so much signal a major U.S. policy change as notice the diplomatic door is ever so slightly ajar, and let Pyongyang know what it must do in order to push the door open further. He did exactly what a U.S. administration resolved against North Korean nuclear weapons and prepared for a military solution, but desperately hoping to avoid that grim outcome, needed him to do. He did it at a forum in Washington, D.C., but perhaps his real audience was in Pyongyang and Beijing.