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On North Korea, Tillerson Plays Good Cop to Trump’s Bad Cop
Trump's provocative statements could drown out Tillerson's appeal for calm, as thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Guam are in the crosshairs.
While U.S. President Donald Trump rattled the nuclear saber at North Korea, his secretary of state urged calm as he wrapped up a diplomatic sortie in East Asia.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night, [and] have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” he told reporters en route to Guam for a refueling stop. “Nothing I have seen and nothing i know of would indicate that situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”
(Though reports of North Korea producing miniaturized nuclear warheads, crossing an important threshold for nuclear powers, may say otherwise.)
That toned-down talk was a stark shift from Trump, who just hours earlier issued perhaps the most incendiary statement from a U.S. president on North Korea yet.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said Tuesday from his Bedminster golf resort in New Jersey.
The specter of a U.S.-North Korea confrontation over nuclear weapons carried extra symbolic clout: It came just as Japan marked the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Hours after Trump’s remarks, Pyongyang responded by signaling it was considering strikes against Guam, a strategic U.S. military outpost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — which happened to be where Tillerson was stopping over on his way back to Washington.
Tillerson said he didn’t consider steering clear of Guam after Pyongyang’s threat. “The North Korean missile capability can point at many directions. So Guam is not the only place that can be under threat. No, I never considered rerouting the trip back,” he said.
“And I do not believe that there is any imminent threat, in my own view.”
But while Tillerson urged calm, the U.S. military has quietly heightened its posture as tensions between the Hermit Kingdom and Washington have gone from a simmer to a boil.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also fired a rhetorical warning shot at Pyongyang on Wednesday, warning the rogue regime to “take heed” of the international community’s unified condemnation of its provocations, and waving a big stick, too.
“Kim Jong Un should take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice, and statements from governments the world over, who agree [North Korea] poses a threat to global security and stability. [North Korea] must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement. After warning that “the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” he reminded North Korea that it “would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
Pentagon officials say they have not been ordered to shift any troops or materiel in the region since Tuesday, but earlier in the week, some critical assets were already in action. On Monday, Guam-based U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers overflew Japan and South Korea in a marathon 10-hour mission which saw them partner with Japanese and South Korean fighter jets. The bombers also overflew the peninsula in July after North Korean missile tests in a show of force.
Situated about 4,000 miles west of Hawaii, Guam has been a hub of American military activity in the Pacific since the middle of World War II. It houses a joint Navy and Air Force base, which is home to nuclear submarines, strategic bombers, and fighter planes that regularly work with countries in the region and monitor North Korean activities. About 6,000 U.S. troops are stationed on the island — and more are on the way. About 5,000 Marines will likely relocate to Guam from Okinawa.
Despite his calming words, Tillerson defended Trump’s provocative remarks, saying they would get through to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a way past diplomatic signals didn’t.
“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” he said.
“The pressure is starting to show,” he added. “I think that’s why the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang has gotten louder and more threatening.”
The uptick in tensions came after the United Nations Security Council slapped sweeping new sanctions on Pyongyang, with the support of China and Russia. Both Tillerson and his North Korean counterpart then attended a Southeast Asian diplomatic summit in Manila. Though the two never crossed paths, top diplomats from other countries in the region used the forum to rally behind the United States and ratchet up pressure on North Korea.
Tillerson said it’s important to keep a diplomatic off-ramp open to Pyongyang to ease tensions.
“Whether we’ve got them backed into a corner or not is difficult to say,” Tillerson said. “But diplomatically you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Trump’s top aides sang a different tune.
The president “is saying don’t test America and don’t test Donald J. Trump,” Seb Gorka, one of Trump’s top national security aides, told Fox and Friends Wednesday morning. “The message is very clear: Don’t test this White House, Pyongyang.”
This article was updated Wednesday afternoon.
Photo credit: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer