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Tillerson's North Korean Overture Highlights His Credibility Problem

Dec 13, 2017
Originally published on December 13, 2017 9:12 am

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is ready to talk about talking to North Korea.

"We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. And we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition," he said, in remarks Tuesday at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

It sounds like a chance for a diplomatic resolution to the dangerous nuclear crisis with North Korea, which has gotten tenser in recent months after North Korea's sixth nuclear test and two successful launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Throughout 2017, incendiary threats and name-calling have flown from the U.S. and Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and the U.S. policy of "maximum pressure" has led to increasing sanctions to starve North Korea of resources.

Now, the secretary of state is saying the U.S. wants to sit down with North Korean leaders.

"We can talk about the weather if you want," Tillerson said, in his overture to North Korea. "We can talk about whether it's going to be a square table or a round table if that's what you're excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards. I don't think — it's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program."

Some North Korea security watchers — like Van Jackson — are skeptical.

"I just sort of rolled my eyes," said Jackson, a former Asia specialist for the Defense Department who is now at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington. He says this is just posturing from Tillerson because the U.S. can't effectively say it wants to talk when its goal is complete, verifiable denuclearization by North Korea. For Pyongyang, giving up its nuclear program is a non-starter.

"We know that North Korea is not going to go there. So if you want to actually negotiate something, you can't have an unrealistic goal," Jackson says.

In Seoul, James Kim of the policy think tank the Asan Institute says the significance of this depends on North Korea's response to Tillerson.

"It really depends whether North Korea stops testing and comes to the bargaining table to talk, or they continue to test and [show they're] not going to engage in any talks at this time," Kim says.

For its part, South Korea is pushing for a peaceful resolution. Its foreign minister wants to reopen a communication channel with Pyongyang to avoid military mishaps and to discuss family reunions for those split by the Korean War. But no matter what South Korea wants, both Kim and Jackson agree Tillerson's words are diluted by the fact he and President Trump often say opposing things. Tillerson has signaled a willingness to talk before — with Trump then undermining his message by tweeting that talks won't work.

"The total lack of consistency. The total inability to separate rhetoric from substance. All of it makes people throw up their hands," Jackson says. "How can you take what Tillerson says now seriously in the context of the past 10, 11 months?"

That is a question North Korea will weigh in deciding whether to respond.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, the U.S. secretary of state has a message for North Korea. Here is Rex Tillerson speaking yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: We're ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition.

INSKEEP: So is this a chance for a diplomatic resolution to the dangerous nuclear crisis with North Korea? Let's ask NPR's Elise Hu.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, after North Korea tested its latest intercontinental ballistic missile, it announced its state nuclear force was complete. In response, the U.S. policy to pressure North Korea by cutting off its resources continued. But now the secretary of state is going farther than before in offering a sit-down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TILLERSON: Can we at least sit down and see each other face to face, and then we can begin to lay out a map, a roadmap of what we might be willing to work towards?

HU: Some North Korea security watchers, like Van Jackson, are skeptical.

VAN JACKSON: I just sort of rolled my eyes. (Laughter).

HU: A former Asia specialist for the Defense Department, Jackson's now at New Zealand's Victoria University. He says this is all just posturing from Tillerson because the U.S. can't effectively say it wants to talk when its goal is complete verifiable denuclearization by North Korea. For Pyongyang, giving up its nuclear program is a non-starter.

JACKSON: We know that North Korea's not going to go there. So if you want to actually negotiate something, you can't have an unrealistic goal.

HU: James Kim of the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, says the significance of this depends on North Korea's response to Tillerson.

JAMES KIM: It really depends whether North Korea stops testing and come to the bargaining table to talk, or, they continue to test, which means that they're not going to engage in any talk at this time.

HU: South Korea is pushing for a peaceful resolution. Its foreign minister wants to reopen a direct hotline with Pyongyang to avoid military mishaps. But no matter what South Korea wants, both Kim and Jackson agree Tillerson's words are diluted because he and President Donald Trump often say opposing things. Tillerson has signaled willingness to talk before, but then Trump tweeted that talks won't work.

JACKSON: The total lack of consistency, the total inability to separate rhetoric from substance, all of this simply makes people throw up their hands and be like, well, I don't know what to believe. Right? How can you take what Tillerson says now seriously in the context of the past 10, 11 months?

HU: A question North Korea will weigh in deciding whether to respond. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.