Tillerson Backtracks on Overture to North Korea, Slams China and Russia
"North Korea must earn its way back to the table," Tillerson told U.N.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scrapped an offer to talk without preconditions to North Korea from the text of his high-level U.N. speech delivered Friday, marking a further retreat from the diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang he made just three days ago.
The reversal by America’s top diplomat, which followed pressure from the White House, marked an extraordinary turn of events that raises questions about President Donald Trump’s willingness to look for a diplomatic answer to North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons.
In remarks before the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Tillerson said “we will never accept a nuclear North Korea.” While saying that Washington favored a peaceful outcome to the crisis, he made clear this week’s offer to negotiate is apparently no longer valid.
“A sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin. North Korea must earn its way back to the table,” he said.
North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities amount to a “direct threat to our security and the security of the entire world,” Tillerson told the 15-nation council at a high-level meeting on nuclear nonproliferation convened by Japan, which currently holds the UNSC rotating presidency.
“The United States will not allow the regime in Pyongyang to hold the world hostage,” Tillerson said. “We do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea.” But he added: “The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression.”
On Tuesday, Tillerson expressed interest in restarting talks with North Korea “without preconditions,” and planned to reiterate that offer, according to the prepared version of his remarks, which were distributed to the press ahead of Friday’s speech. But that line was omitted from the speech he gave to the Security Council.
Tillerson’s speech came just as the Trump administration is scrambling to get its messaging straight on how it wants to deal with North Korea, signaling growing rifts between the embattled secretary of state and the White House.
After Tillerson’s initial offer of talks on Tuesday, the White House rebuffed his comments, and the State Department quickly backtracked. For the third time in recent months, reports emerged from White House sources that Trump was thinking of canning Tillerson, who appeared publicly at odds again with the White House line on North Korea.
In his Friday speech, Tillerson returned to a tougher stance and took particular aim at what the administration sees as lackluster effort by China and Russia to pressure Pyongyang. He noted that Beijing and Moscow continue to engage in economic activity that strengthens North Korea’s capacity to fund its nuclear and missile developments, and raised questions about their commitment to peace.
“Continuing to allow North Korean laborers to toil in slave-like conditions in Russia in exchange for wages used to fund nuclear weapons programs calls into question Russia’s dedication as a partner for peace,” he added. “Similarly, as Chinese crude oil flows to North Korean refineries, the United States questions China’s commitment to solving an issue that has serious implications for the security of its own citizens.”
China’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Wu Haitao, said Beijing has already made sacrifices by clamping down on business it does with North Korea.
“China has made a greater effort and paid a higher price than anyone else,” he said. “It is irresponsible to doubt or challenge what China has done.”
Wu also urged Washington to tone down its belligerent rhetoric, saying “there is no military option when it comes to the settlement of the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Resort to force can only bring disastrous consequences to the peninsula.”
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, while condemning North Korea’s nuclear weapons, also blamed U.S. military exercises in the region, as well as additional sanctions, for aggravating the crisis — which “force us to wonder about the sincerity” of U.S. claims that it wants to peaceful resolution of the crisis, he said.
North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Ja Song Nam, accused the Security Council of having “double standards” and “prejudice” for singling his country out, insisting North Korea’s nuclear weapons were defensive and didn’t violate any international law.
“If anyone is to blame for it, the U.S. is the one who must be held accountable,” Ja said, accusing the United States of “blackmailing other countries with its nuclear weapons.”
Tillerson countered by pinning the blame on North Korea’s leadership. “They alone are responsible for these tensions, they alone must take responsibility for these tensions, and they alone can solve these tensions,” he said.
The diplomatic standoff between Washington and Pyongyang has heightened international anxiety over the prospects of war on the Korean Peninsula.
“I am deeply concerned by the risk of military confrontation, including as a result of unintended miscalculation,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned the council. “Any military action would have devastating and unpredictable consequences.”
Guterres sharply criticized North Korea, saying its “actions show a blatant disregard for the will and resolutions of the Security Council and undermines the international norms against nuclear testing and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”
Since Trump took office, North Korea has conducted 20 missile tests, including the launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, in violation of U.N. resolutions. North Korea is also the only country in the world to have violated a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. On Sept. 3, Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test the year, unleashing an earthquake of 6.1 magnitude.
But Guterres also delivered criticism of Trump, who has insulted and threatened Kim over Twitter, while also publicly undercutting Tillerson’s efforts at diplomatic outreach.
The risk of war, Guterres said, “is being multiplied by misplaced over-confidence, dangerous narratives and rhetoric, and the lack of communication channels. It is time to immediately re-establish and strengthen communication channels.”
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch