by Tim Shorrock
Korea watchers were offered a glimmer of hope in a front page, above-the-fold story in last Sunday’s New York Times. According to David Sanger’s reporting from Beijing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in “direct communications” with the North Korean government of Kim Jong Un through at least three channels to seek “a possible way forward” from the escalating threats of war on the Korean Peninsula. Suddenly, it seemed, the diplomacy long promised by Tillerson was back on the front burner.
But within hours, President Trump threw cold water on the idea. In a series of early morning tweets, he informed the American people that he told Tillerson “our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” his derisive term for the 33-year-old Kim. He then added: “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Asked on Monday about Trump’s apparent slap in the face to his own top diplomat, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders backed the president. “We’ve been clear that now is not the time to talk,” she said. “The only conversations that have taken place were that … would be on bringing back Americans who have been detained. Beyond that, there will be no conversations with North Korea at this time.”
Immediately, analysts speculated that perhaps Tillerson and Trump were playing some kind of bizarre good-cop-bad-cop routine. If so, two AP diplomatic reporters wrote, that such a dangerous game “may be increasing the risk of miscalculation by the isolated, communist government, which lacks insight into the Trump administration’s thinking and could mistake brinkmanship for an overt threat of war.”
It’s still unclear how this one-two punch from Tillerson and Trump will work out. Until then, here are some thoughts on Trump’s latest disaster into the foreign policy minefield of North Korea and its decades-long standoff with the United States.
War of Words
Trump’s rejection of diplomacy and his taunts of “Little Rocket Man” show that he has taken Kim’s missile and nuclear tests personally—the last thing a US official should do when dealing with this angry but wily regime. Moreover, his threats to rain “fire and fury” on and to “totally destroy” North Korea if it doesn’t follow US dictates have exposed his own hatred of this country of 25 million people.
Expressing these thoughts so openly has even disturbed neoconservative regime change proponents, such as Bruce Klingner, the former CIA analyst who heads up Korea programs for the right-wing Heritage Foundation. “Trump’s personal invectives have become a distraction from the real issue of North Korea’s growing military threat and violations of UN resolutions,” Klingner wrote in an op-ed in The Hill published on Monday.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who successfully negotiated with North Korea on behalf of the Clinton administration in the 1990s, added his voice in an article in Politico on Tuesday.
In 1994, Perry recalled, “the North Koreans called me a war maniac.” But rather than responding to their “invective,” he said, he “prepared a contingency plan to take out their reprocessing plant if they continued to make plutonium.” In the end, Perry argued, maintaining silence while engaging in “coercive diplomacy… succeeded in deterring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for several years.” Later, when he traveled to Pyongyang for missile negotiations, he “wondered how this ‘war maniac’ would be received. It was, in fact, with great respect, revealing that their earlier invective was posturing.” Perhaps the Trump administration can learn this lesson.
North Korea’s Rhetoric
Kim, too, has taken Trump’s threats personally—to a remarkable and unprecedented degree for a North Korean leader. This was made excruciatingly clear after Trump’s UN speech last month, when Kim responded personally with a front-page editorial in Rodong Shinmun. In that article, which quickly became an Internet sensation, he called Trump a “dotard” and a “frightened dog” that “has rendered the world restless through threats and blackmail against all countries in the world.” He added: “On behalf of the dignity and honor of my state and people and on my own, I will make the man holding the prerogative of the supreme command in the U.S. pay dearly for his speech.”
Kim’s personal attack was a shocking departure from the past, Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea Analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, told a forum last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). North Korean leaders, she said, have often blasted US policy and US leaders, but “never in the first person” (in 2014, for example, North Korea dredged up some nasty language to call President Obama a “juvenile delinquent” and “clown” who “does not even have the basic appearances of a human being”—but only through KCNA, its official press service).
By focusing so much on Kim, Trump “limits US action,” she argued, because now Kim “can’t back down” from his plans to complete his nuclear weapons program. So “we’re boxing ourselves in,” she concluded.
Andray Abrahamian, a fellow at the Jeju Peace Institute in South Korea, took that argument a step further in 38North on Monday. “Debate at the very top of North Korean politics does exist, but it comes prior to the leader’s decision,” he wrote. “Kim has now narrowed that debate. Who could be seen to be advocating a softer line, when the dignity of their leader continues to be impugned? If a cataclysm on the Korean peninsula is to be avoided, President Trump must dial back the personal nature of his rhetoric.”
Despite what the White House said Monday, Tillerson’s State Department does have several avenues of dialogue open with North Korea. The most important, of course, is the “New York Channel” through Pyongyang’s UN delegation, which has a direct line to Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. Another is the on-going dialogue between former US officials and intelligence officers that takes place at regular intervals in Pyongyang, Europe, and New York.
On the US side, these informal talks include pro-engagement figures such as former diplomat Joel Wit and former UN official Suzanne DiMaggio (who both spoke to NPR this week about Trump’s policies) as well hardliners like Klingner and Terry. In a remarkable sign of how eager the Kim government is to continue these discussions, The Washington Post reported last week that the North has reached out to Klingner and other Republicans “in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un’s regime.”
In addition, two other channels between the US and North Korea have been established by citizens groups that represent families of US soldiers who are still missing in action from the Korean War and Korean-American families with relatives in the North.
But the effectiveness of these channels will depend on the degree of support they get from Trump and his incompetent White House. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress that he “fully” favors “Secretary Tillerson’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution” in Korea. But as he well knows, that could be undone by a single tweet from the commander-in-chief.
Photo: Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump