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Tillerson Says Military Action Against North Korea ‘On the Table,’ Then Curtails South Korea Visit, for ‘Fatigue’

Tillerson brought but one reporter along for the trip, but still managed to make headlines.

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Where in the world is the secretary of state?

According to the Korea Herald, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut short his public visits with South Korean officials on Friday, citing “fatigue.”

South Korea was the second of Tillerson’s three stops on his trip to Asia, after Japan. He was scheduled to go to China on Saturday and Sunday. It is unclear if he went to Beijing early; the lone reporter he brought with him on the trip — Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review — has not shed any light on the matter.

Even without a press corps, Tillerson managed to make headlines. At a press conference in South Korea on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that use of military action against North Korea is “on the table.”

“I think it’s important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed,” Tillerson said.

“Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict. But obviously if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces then that would be met with an appropriate response,” adding, “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table.”

Tillerson’s comments toward North Korea don’t necessarily mark a real rupture with U.S. policy — the United States has maintained thousands of troops in South Korea for decades for a reason, after all.

The deeper departure, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, may be in Pyongyang. Previous North Korean provocations have been attempts to prod negotiations or intimidate South Korea. But this particular North Korean leader is not much interested in negotiating, although some might say that makes the purpose of all the saber rattling unclear.

Meanwhile, Tillerson did appear to amend longstanding U.S. policy toward South Korea, telling Fox News that he wouldn’t rule out nuclear weapons for U.S. allies in Asia, a line President Donald Trump had used during the campaign.

Tillerson’s statement comes the week after the first deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, and just days after South Korea, the United States, and Japan began naval drills off North Korea. Both moves upset Beijing, which warned of escalation and urged the renewal of talks on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

And if Tillerson’s diplomatic mission in Beijing was already going to be delicate enough, his boss helpfully sent out this tweet to smooth things along:

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin