After a North Korean missile test on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a terse and frankly bizarre statement — one that confused even dedicated foreign affairs reporters:
Uhhhh what does this mean pic.twitter.com/PzRpi6xjVt— Jessica Schulberg (@jessicaschulb) April 4, 2017
Is the US giving up negotiating with Kim Jong Un? Is it planning to slap new sanctions on Pyongyang? Is it even thinking of some kind of military action against North Korea?
So far, the answer has been, “No, no, and also no.” The Trump administration in general, and Secretary Tillerson in particular, have talked tough about North Korea since inauguration. But in policy terms, there’s no evidence that the Trump administration is doing anything different from what you’ve seen with previous US administrations.
While Tillerson’s statement is dramatic-sounding, and possibly confusing for America’s allies in South Korea and Japan, there is no reason to think it’s the beginning of a new North Korea policy. That speaks to the fact that when it comes to North Korea, Washington simply does not have a lot of cards to play.
What is Trump’s North Korea policy?
It’s easy to forget, but Tillerson said something even more threatening about North Korea — just last month.
“The policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said ominously during a March 17 press conference in South Korea. "Certainly we do not want for things to get to military conflict, [but] if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, then that option's on the table."
That sounded like a major policy shift in the abstract — like Tillerson was taking negotiations off the table, and putting military action against the North Korean regime on it.
But as my colleague Jennifer Williams pointed out at the time, there was no evidence that America’s actual policy toward North Korea shifted. Trump hadn’t canceled any Obama-era commitments to the region, like deploying the THAAD missile defense system; he wasn’t deploying new military assets to the region in a way that looked like he was gearing up for a military strike.
Experts on North Korea across the political spectrum take a similar view, seeing Trump’s policy as largely identical to the “strategic patience” approach that Tillerson has threatened to scrap. That means trying to maintain the military status quo on the Korean Peninsula, more or less, while essentially waiting for North Korea to decide that it was willing to trade its nuclear weapons for some kind of diplomatic concession.
“Despite the rhetoric, it's still unclear to me that the Trump administration's approach to [North Korea] is anything new,” Abraham Denmark, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia in the Obama administration, tweeted in response to Tillerson’s March 17 comments. “It seems like the Trump policy will be many of the same things that Obama did, but with greater vigor,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said in a BBC interview at the time.
It makes sense that Tillerson would want to distinguish himself from past US policy. North Korea’s nuclear program is a genuinely serious threat to global security, one that’s gotten significantly worse as time has gone on. Tillerson wants to signal that the Trump administration will do something different, something more aggressive and more effective.
The problem, though, is that there genuinely is not very much to do at this point.
North Korea’s economy is effectively sealed off from international trade, owing to existing economic sanctions, so there aren’t really any new American sanctions that could bite. The North Korean economy functions in large part because China helps it circumvent the existing sanctions, and so Beijing could theoretically pressure North Korea. But while it is willing to take relatively minor steps, like recently blocking North Korea’s coal exports, it’s not willing to cut off the country entirely, as it fears a massive outpouring of refugees across the Korean border into China in the event of an economic collapse. So it will continue to prop up Pyongyang for the foreseeable future.
There is also no feasible military option. North Korea has too many nukes, dispersed in too many places, to destroy in a preemptive strike. Its retaliation would kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in Korea and Japan in short order. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Sunday that a new war on the Korean Peninsula would be one with “an intensity of violence associated with it that we haven't seen since the last Korean War” — in which roughly 2.5 million people perished.
As for negotiation, experts believe there’s basically no way North Korea would agree to give up its nukes at this point. In October, then–Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called it a “lost cause.” The nukes are far too important as a deterrent against an American or South Korean attack.
“The North Koreans have always been super clear that they’re willing to trade away stuff that they haven’t done yet for promises of a better relationship, but they’re not willing to trade away stuff that they have done,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me in an interview last year. “Making a deal with North Korea is going to require accepting that they have a certain amount of nuclear capability that will threaten South Korea and Japan.”
What we’re left with is an American policy of basically accepting the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons while taking whatever steps are feasible to protect American allies in the region from the North Korean threat (like installing missile defense systems in South Korea).
Rex Tillerson is aware of this reality. Which is why, despite his tough talk, there’s been no major policy shift on North Korea: There’s very little productive that could be done.