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Tillerson’s new North Korea strategy is at odds with Trump—again

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2017.
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
They “disagree on certain subjects.”
  • Steve Mollman
By Steve Mollman

Weekend editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has laid out a new strategy on North Korea, by saying this yesterday (Dec. 12):

“We are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. We are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions. Let’s just meet, and then we can begin to lay out a roadmap…It’s not realistic to say we are only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program.”

But Tillerson did think it was realistic (paywall) in March, when he said that negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction…Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”

Administrations are allowed to adopt new strategies, of course, and were Tillerson on the same page as his boss, his latest statement would mark a significant shift in the Trump administration’s position. Yet in response to Tillerson’s remarks, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration’s stance had not changed.

It wasn’t the first time Tillerson appeared to be at odds with the administration over North Korea. In October, he said the US had direct lines of communication to Pyongyang and was “probing” to find ways to resolve the tension over nuclear weapons. A day later, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”

In October, NBC News reported that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” after a July meeting at the Pentagon, and had to be talked out of quitting by vice president Mike Pence. Trump later told Forbes, “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”

Tillerson’s words yesterday probably threw Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe for a loop. Abe was preparing to convey to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres—in Tokyo for a health-care conference—his opposition to talks with Pyongyang, and the need to apply maximize pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-un. Last week, the UN, which favors dialogue, sent its political-affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman to Pyongyang for talks.

Back in Washington, Tillerson’s statement could fuel speculation that his days in office are numbered. Late last month, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration planned to force Tillerson out (paywall), possibly replacing him with CIA director Mike Pompeo. Days later Trump dismissed the reporting as, again, “fake news,” while conceding that he and Tillerson “disagree on certain subjects.”

North Korea is a big subject to be disagreeing on.

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