U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, once again, brought up the idea of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, saying on Tuesday: “We can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table.”
But unless the United States walks into negotiations with realistic goals, the shape of the table might be just about all North Korea is willing to discuss.
Through North Korean state media, the country’s foreign ministry last week indicated that it felt war was not a matter of if, but when. This was in response to a massive joint military exercise held by the United States and South Korea.
The United States will not accept a North Korea with any nuclear capability. North Korea views the United States as an existential threat and will not give up its quest for the kinds of nuclear warheads that can reach the United States (hence its underground nuclear tests and periodic firing of ballistic missiles). In addition to engaging in several rounds of name-calling with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump has responded to Pyongyang with some very heated rhetoric — everything from a vague “fire and fury” threat to the outright threat to “totally destroy” North Korea — a country of 25 million, located between South Korea (population: 51 million) and China (population: 1.34 billion).
Tillerson’s previous attempts at cooling things down and opening dialogue have been openly disparaged by Trump on Twitter, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wasted no time on Tuesday in countering Tillerson’s line by saying that “nothing has changed” in Trump’s stance on North Korea.
After a four-day visit to North Korea, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, said he told officials that that “they need to signal that they’re willing now to go in a different direction, to start some kind of engagement, to start talking about talks,” the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
Calling the mission “constructive and productive,” Feltman said he felt the North Koreans “listened seriously,” but that they “did not offer any type of commitment to us at that point. They have to reflect on what we said with their own leadership.”
But what is the U.S. leadership doing? Other than Tillerson’s signalling, there’s little talk of the United States ever accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, which makes any talks a non-starter for Pyongyang. And in addition to negating Tillerson’s talk of diplomacy as “not the answer,” Trump has only flaccidly refuted reports that he plans to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, rendering Tillerson a potential dead man walking in his administration and weakening the secretary’s position.
Van Jackson, a former Asia specialist for the Defense Department, listed the reasons he thinks the United States is wrong-footed in its strategy for NPR: “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?”
Trump has also been leaning on China rather heavily, hoping it can pressure North Korea into falling in line — a course of action for which China has little appetite. Being North Korea’s top trading partner and sharing a border, China is invested in a peaceful solution. But reading the signals, it has started advising its citizens on how to cope with a potential nuclear fallout, while planning to build camps at the border in preparation for a rush of refugees from North Korea.
Still, the United States pushes on with a China strategy that has, so far, yielded no results. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on Tuesday went so far as to say that China is “running out of time,” and that it needs to do more to help isolate North Korea. Russia has been aligning itself with China, juxtaposing itself as the voice of reason next to what is seen as the hyperbolic narrative of the Trump administration. Russia and China are carrying out what Newsweek describes a six-day “computer-simulated anti-missile air drill” in Beijing as a show of strength to both Washington and Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, a Russian delegation touched down in Pyongyang Wednesday, roughly two weeks after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly called out the United States for essentially looking for a reason to attack North Korea and escalating tensions by conducting military drills with South Korea.
Calling North Koreans a “neighbor” to Russia in advance of the visit to Pyongyang, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on Wednesday told reporters, “We need to develop relations with that country, and political dialogue is very important. We use any opportunities for direct communication, and we will continue using them in the future, including through the Defense Ministry.”