Tillerson also said that US-China relations appear to be at a historic inflection point that must be carefully managed.
North Korea’s nuclear program poses an “imminent” threat that nonetheless requires the United States, China, and other countries to respond with a “staged approach” that includes sanctions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a rare encounter with the media.
Tillerson, speaking to the conservative Independent Journal Review in an interview published Saturday, also said that U.S.-China relations appear to be at a historic inflection point that must be carefully managed.
China’s foreign minister, meanwhile, urged the United States to remain “cool-headed” on the issue of North Korea and to consider going ahead with talks with Pyongyang.
The U.S. secretary of state is in the final stages of a trip to Asia, having made stops in Japan and South Korea and, this weekend, in China. A good chunk of his discussions have focused on how to handle the challenge posed by the government in Pyongyang, whose recent ballistic missile tests have alarmed the international community.
Tillerson repeatedly framed the North Korean threat as “imminent,” and during his trip he has ruled out negotiations with the country while leaving open the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike to eliminate its nuclear program.
But in his interview with IJR, Tillerson did not promise any imminent public response by the U.S. and others, aside from the ongoing diplomatic flurries. Instead, he said there had to be a “staged approach” to North Korea, one that involves enforcing, and possibly enhancing, international sanctions, while persuading Pyongyang that giving up its nuclear weapons would help it on other levels.
“Our objective is to have the regime in North Korea come to a conclusion that the reasons that they have felt they have had to develop nuclear weapons, those reasons are not well-founded,” Tillerson said, an apparent reference to the North Korean government’s belief that the United States poses an existential threat to its survival.
“We do believe that if North Korea [were to] stand down on this nuclear program, that is their quickest means to begin to develop their economy and to become a vibrant economy for the North Korean people,” said Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil. “If they don’t do that, they will have a very difficult time developing their economy.”
It’s entirely possible the United States is taking additional covert measures against North Korea that Tillerson is not at liberty to discuss, including the use of cyberattacks. But after decades of harshly repressing its impoverished population in a bid to maintain power, it’s not clear how far economic arguments will go toward convincing the militaristic and communist-inspired North Korean government to give up its nukes. The regime is led by 30-something Kim Jong-un, who inherited power from his father, Kim Jong-il.
But Tillerson said that by enforcing and expanding economic and additional sanctions through the United Nations and other forums, the U.S. and other countries are trying to give North Korea time to change course. “it’s not our objective to force them into some brash action,” he said. “It’s our objective for them to understand things only continue to get more difficult if they don’t change their path.”
Tillerson also downplayed, but did not entirely rule out, suggestions that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons in a bid to stave off the North Korean threat.
“We say all options are on the table, but we cannot predict the future,” he said. “So we do think it’s important that everyone in the region has a clear understanding that circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that. But as I said yesterday, there are a lot of … there’s a lot of steps and a lot of distance between now and a time that we would have to make a decision like that.”
China’s sway over North Korea is perhaps the most urgent issue the two countries must tackle, Tillerson said. The secretary of state indicated that the Trump administration believes China must do more to enforce sanctions on North Korea, which relies on Beijing as an economic lifeline.
It’s the same stance taken by the Obama administration, which toward the end of its tenure also was increasingly alarmed by the threat posed by North Korea. President Barack Obama is reported to have told Trump that North Korea is the top national security priority facing his new administration.
In a tweet before Tillerson landed in Beijing, his final stop, Trump wrote: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
Tillerson told IJR that he did not know the president was going to tweet on the subject, but that what he wrote was consistent with what their pair had discussed before the secretary of state took off for Asia.
Tillerson also said “the Chinese and the U.S. need to have a fresh conversation about what will define the relationship between the United States and China for the next 50 years.”
“I do think because of what is happening globally with people in the world over — globalization itself —that we’re at perhaps at an inflection point in the relationship of global powers in general,” Tillerson said, before going to on to speak about China more specifically.
“We can look back and see how successful we’ve been, 40 years of what I would say has been a very successful relationship with two very powerful nations living with one another without conflict,” he said. “But now we find that there are issues arising that have gone unresolved. And I think how we are able to talk about those and how we are able to chart our course forward is going to set, potentially the relationship in a new era of existing together without conflict, in an era of non-conflict.”
Those words appeared to faintly echo Obama’s notion of a “pivot,” or “rebalance,” to Asia — an effort that involved trying to improve relations with China while also strengthening U.S. alliances elsewhere on the continent. But the Trump administration has been wary of using Obama-era language.
Trump himself often has been harsh toward China, especially on what he calls its unfair trade practices. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration, is also worried about China’s military moves in the South China Sea.
Later Saturday, after talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, Tillerson echoed some of the same themes as in his IJR interview, especially on the need to cooperate on facing down North Korea. But his counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, pushed back on U.S. criticism that China has not done enough to deal with North Korea.
The Chinese diplomat, in a joint press conference with Tillerson, cast the nuclear issue as primarily a point of contention between the United States and North Korea, and noted that U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, while mapping out sanctions, also have provisions calling for a resumption of talks.
“Therefore, it is obliged upon all parties to implement the sanctions and restart the talks at the same time,” Wang said, adding, “We hope all parties, including our friends from the United States, could size up the situation in a cool-headed and comprehensive fashion and arrive at a wise decision.”
Tillerson has been criticized heavily for largely avoiding the press during his seven weeks so far in office.
In his interview with IJR reporter Erin McPike, he defended himself by saying he prefers to get things done in a quiet manner. But Tillerson’s press-shy approach has allowed other countries to control the narrative, at times to the secretary of state’s detriment.
McPike was the only reporter allowed to travel with Tillerson, breaking with decades of tradition in which a group of media outlets went with the secretary of state on such major trips. Further frustrating other media organizations was that McPike did not act as a “pool reporter,” meaning she didn’t file regular updates about the trip for other journalists to use.