Look­ing for the good cop on North Korea

As Don­ald Trump and Rex Tiller­son di­verge on rhetoric, the United States strat­egy on North Korea be­comes clearer.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Karen Mid­dle­ton.

When Gareth Evans was Aus­tralia’s for­eign min­is­ter and Bob Hawke its prime min­is­ter, they were, Evans says, “as close as lips and teeth”.

“We talked to each other all the time about for­eign pol­icy is­sues,” the for­mer min­is­ter said this week, af­ter Hawke had launched Evans’ mem­oir, In­cor­ri­gi­ble Op­ti­mist.

“There wasn’t a pa­per tis­sue be­tween us and it would have been very bad for our cred­i­bil­ity – ours or any other gov­ern­ment – had that have been so.”

He was com­par­ing that re­la­tion­ship to the one be­tween United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, af­ter the com­man­derin-chief’s star­tling pub­lic in­ter­ven­tion on North Korea at the week­end ap­peared to un­der­cut Tiller­son’s at­tempts to bro­ker com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the her­mit king­dom.

Those at­tempts in­volve sev­eral coun­tries di­rectly and, more pe­riph­er­ally, Aus­tralia, which is pro­vid­ing back-chan­nel sup­port via its re­gional re­la­tion­ships, es­pe­cially with China and South Korea.

A for­mer oil in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tive turned diplo­mat, Tiller­son was re­mark­ably frank about the sta­tus of talks dur­ing a brief­ing with jour­nal­ists in Bei­jing last week­end.

“We’re not in a dark sit­u­a­tion, a blackout,” he said. “We have a cou­ple – three – chan­nels open to Py­ongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them.”

With the sim­mer­ing ten­sions on the Korean penin­sula as close to boiling over as they have been in decades, the chief pro­tag­o­nists’ ev­ery word faces in­tense scru­tiny. Stu­dents of diplo­macy were stunned to see Trump take to Twit­ter, telling Tiller­son on North

“WHERE DOES IT LEAVE TILLER­SON WITH THE CHI­NESE? IF THAT HAP­PENED IN THE AUS­TRALIAN CON­TEXT, THE FOR­EIGN MIN­IS­TER WOULD HAVE TO RE­SIGN.”

Korea: “Save your en­ergy Rex.”

Trump de­clared his sec­re­tary was “wast­ing his time try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with Lit­tle Rocket Man”, re­peat­ing the deroga­tory nick­name for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he first used in his re­cent speech to the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly, ap­par­ently – word is, in Wash­ing­ton – against the ad­vice of his most se­nior cabi­net ministers, in­clud­ing Tiller­son.

The mis­sive was dis­patched to Trump’s al­most 40-mil­lion-strong

Twit­ter au­di­ence soon af­ter re­ports emerged from the Bei­jing brief­ing.

Tiller­son had told jour­nal­ists the US aimed to erad­i­cate nu­clear weapons from the Korean penin­sula.

“This is go­ing to be a process of en­gage­ment with North Korea that will be step­wise,” he said. “I think the most im­me­di­ate ac­tion that we need is to calm things down. They’re a lit­tle over­heated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first. And then the first con­ver­sa­tion is around: What are we go­ing to talk about? Be­cause we’ve not even had that con­ver­sa­tion. And so the first time I would have the op­por­tu­nity to sit with the North Kore­ans, it would be to say: ‘What do you want to talk about?’ We haven’t even got­ten that far yet.”

As­so­ci­ated Press jour­nal­ist Christo­pher Bodeen asked: “When you talk about the rhetoric be­ing a lit­tle over­heated, does that ap­ply also to Pres­i­dent Trump? And should Pres­i­dent Trump maybe tone down some of his com­ments as well?”

The sec­re­tary did not re­ject the sug­ges­tion. “I think the whole sit­u­a­tion’s a bit over­heated right now,” he said. “I think ev­ery­one would like for it to calm down.”

And then he added: “Ob­vi­ously, it would help if North Korea would stop fir­ing off mis­siles. That would calm things down a lot.”

The tim­ing of Trump’s en­su­ing tweet prompted spec­u­la­tion about a bruised ego. The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment is choos­ing a more gen­er­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop de­fended both Trump and Tiller­son this week, cred­it­ing Trump with suc­cess in hav­ing forced China to take out un­prece­dented sanc­tions against North Korea.

“We have now seen China play a very ac­tive role in im­ple­ment­ing the eco­nomic sanc­tions,” Bishop said.

She sug­gested Trump’s tweet re­lated to North Korea’s fail­ure to make good on prom­ises in past ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“How­ever, that shouldn’t mean we should stop try­ing and I be­lieve that Sec­re­tary Tiller­son is seek­ing to find a res­o­lu­tion,” she said, adding that he and oth­ers were en­gaged “in a col­lec­tive strat­egy, as am I on Aus­tralia’s be­half, to put max­i­mum po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic and eco­nomic pres­sure on North Korea to bring it back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble”.

There is a view within the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment that the tweet was Trump be­ing strate­gic, es­tab­lish­ing a “good cop, bad cop” set-up with his sec­re­tary of state.

Based on what ap­pears to be more ob­ser­va­tion than in­for­ma­tion, some be­lieve he is de­lib­er­ately ex­ac­er­bat­ing his un­pre­dictable per­sonal rep­u­ta­tion to en­cour­age coun­tries such as China – and even­tu­ally North Korea – to opt for mov­ing quickly to deal with the more rea­son­able Tiller­son over de­lay­ing and hav­ing to en­gage di­rectly with an er­ratic Trump.

But oth­ers out­side gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing Gareth Evans, see that as a heroic in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“What we saw be­tween Trump and Tiller­son was pretty hair-rais­ing, pretty un­prece­dented in al­most any con­text that I can think of,” Evans said.

“… How Tiller­son finds the ca­pac­ity to stay around, be­ing treated with as much con­tempt as he man­i­festly is by Trump, is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion.”

Other Aus­tralians well cre­den­tialed in diplo­macy, de­fence and gov­ern­ment agree with Evans.

Pro­fes­sor John Blax­land, the di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s Strate­gic and De­fence

Stud­ies Cen­tre, be­lieves Aus­tralia is still be­ing too un­crit­i­cal of the US.

“We are now sup­port­ing the US in a tit-for-tat diplo­matic tirade which has the po­ten­tial to es­ca­late into a ki­netic tirade,” Blax­land says.

He notes that along with ap­ply­ing sanc­tions to North Korea, China is also pun­ish­ing South Korea for al­low­ing the US to base its anti-mis­sile Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fence sys­tem, known as THAAD, on South Korean soil.

The ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute,

Peter Jen­nings, told The Satur­day

Pa­per he wel­comed Tiller­son’s ini­tial com­ments.

“And then to have Trump knock them down al­most con­temp­tu­ously, as he did – I mean, it’s bizarre,” Jen­nings says. “I don’t see this as some sort of clever ‘good cop, bad cop’ ar­range­ment. I think what we have here is an ab­sence of strat­egy.”

He says China has done more than ex­pected but that cred­it­ing Trump with a de­tailed strat­egy was too much. “I’m puz­zled why our gov­ern­ment seems to be grasp­ing at these straws.”

An­other ob­server de­scribed Trump’s tweets as “bizarre” and “some­thing you would ex­pect from some tin-pot dic­ta­tor some­where”.

“There’s no way in the world Trump’s tweet about Tiller­son is part of a strat­egy,” the ob­server told The Satur­day Pa­per.

“That’s go­ing off half-cocked. Where does it leave Tiller­son with the Chi­nese? If that hap­pened in the Aus­tralian con­text, the for­eign min­is­ter would have to re­sign.”

By Wed­nes­day in Wash­ing­ton, the NBC net­work was re­port­ing that Tiller­son had pre­vi­ously threat­ened just that. It said that ear­lier this year, Tiller­son had called Trump a “mo­ron” and that vice-pres­i­dent Mike Pence had to coun­sel him not to go.

Then came an­other ex­tra­or­di­nary de­vel­op­ment: Tiller­son held a Wash­ing­ton news con­fer­ence ex­pressly to deny he had ever con­sid­ered re­sign­ing and to de­clare his sup­port for Trump. He re­jected the sug­ges­tion Pence had had to per­suade him to stay.

Some in Aus­tralian diplo­matic cir­cles won­der if Tiller­son’s heart is re­ally in the job.

In the press con­fer­ence, Tiller­son of­fered his own as­sess­ment of Trump.

“Let me tell you what I’ve learnt about this pres­i­dent, whom I did not know be­fore tak­ing this of­fice. He loves his coun­try. He puts Amer­i­cans and Amer­ica first. He’s smart. He de­mands re­sults wher­ever he goes, and he holds those around him ac­count­able for whether they’ve done the job he’s asked them to do.”

Later, a state depart­ment spokes­woman said the press con­fer­ence had been at Tiller­son’s own in­sti­ga­tion and he and Trump had had “a good con­ver­sa­tion” af­ter­wards.

She de­nied he had ever called the pres­i­dent a “mo­ron”.

“The sec­re­tary does not use that type of lan­guage,” spokes­woman Heather Nauert said. “The sec­re­tary did not use that type of lan­guage to speak about the pres­i­dent of the United States. He does not use that lan­guage to speak about any­one.”

Ear­lier, Tiller­son had failed to deny the al­le­ga­tion, say­ing only that he would not re­spond to “petty stuff like that” and lament­ing: “This is what I don’t un­der­stand about Wash­ing­ton.”

What many ob­servers don’t un­der­stand is the ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tions emerg­ing from deep within the US ad­min­is­tra­tion, es­pe­cially about its in­ten­tions to­wards North Korea.

Af­ter Tiller­son’s Bei­jing brief­ing, his depart­ment tweeted that com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Py­ongyang would not re­main open for­ever.

Then, from the White House podium, pres­i­den­tial spokes­woman

Sarah Huck­abee San­ders had an­other mes­sage. She said the only con­ver­sa­tions that had taken place – or would – re­lated to the three Amer­i­cans still be­ing de­tained there.

“Be­yond that, there will be no con­ver­sa­tions with North Korea at this time,” she said. “… There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween talk­ing and putting [on] diplo­matic pres­sure. We still strongly sup­port putting diplo­matic pres­sure on North Korea, which we’re con­tin­u­ing to do. But now is not the time sim­ply to have con­ver­sa­tions with North Korea.”

Back in Bei­jing, Tiller­son had said: “We’re hope­ful that … the peace­ful pres­sure cam­paign is go­ing to cause the lead­er­ship in North Korea to want to en­gage, and en­gage in the right con­ver­sa­tion. And we’ve made it clear that we hope to re­solve this through talks as well. That’s our prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tive, is a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion.”

Af­ter Tiller­son’s sub­se­quent pledge-of-al­le­giance press con­fer­ence, Trump de­clared he still had his full con­fi­dence.

But the chair­man of the US se­nate’s for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee, Repub­li­can se­na­tor Bob Corker, de­liv­ered a pub­lic back­han­der, de­fend­ing Tiller­son and those oth­ers seen as the cabi­net’s coolest heads, De­fence Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and chief of staff John Kelly.

“I think Sec­re­tary Tiller­son, Sec­re­tary Mat­tis and chief of staff Kelly are those peo­ple that help sep­a­rate our coun­try from chaos,” Corker said. “And I sup­port them very much.”

Two of their Aus­tralian coun­ter­parts, Julie Bishop and De­fence Min­is­ter Marise Payne, will grap­ple with the Korean ten­sions di­rectly next week, trav­el­ling to Seoul for yearly gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment talks.

Ahead of that, a group of 26 emi­nent Aus­tralians ex­pe­ri­enced in diplo­macy, gov­ern­ment, law, academia and hu­man rights have penned an open let­ter urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to ac­tively dis­cour­age what would be a “dire” mil­i­tary con­flict on the Korean penin­sula.

The group, headed by for­mer de­fence depart­ment sec­re­tary Paul Bar­ratt, in­cludes for­mer hu­man rights com­mis­sioner Gil­lian Triggs, for­mer prime min­is­ter’s depart­ment sec­re­tary John Me­nadue, for­mer diplo­mat Ali­son Broinowski and for­mer jus­tice El­iz­a­beth Evatt, a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion of Jurists.

It says ex­ist­ing ne­go­ti­at­ing struc­tures in­volv­ing the par­ties most di­rectly af­fected pro­vided the best frame­work to re­duce ten­sion. “Aus­tralia should use its best diplo­matic ef­forts to fur­ther this process.”

The group raises con­cerns about re­ly­ing on sanc­tions alone and en­cour­ag­ing in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric.

“We should de­sist from adding fuel to the fire with provoca­tive or one-sided state­ments.”

Oth­ers have crit­i­cised Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull’s de­ci­sion to link the North Korea cri­sis to this week’s an­nounce­ment that a new

Aegis mis­sile-de­fence sys­tem would be in­cluded on Aus­tralia’s yet-to-be-built frigates, its ca­pac­ity to shoot down any in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles that might po­ten­tially threaten Aus­tralia is still in de­vel­op­ment.

It is the same sys­tem in­stalled on US and Ja­panese ves­sels and only could be used ef­fec­tively in any con­flict on the penin­sula if po­si­tioned close by.

The ANU’s John Blax­land says North Korea’s ac­tions are be­ing used to jus­tify “ex­pen­di­ture on ca­pa­bil­i­ties we had not con­sid­ered ac­quir­ing be­fore”, be­cause the threat has now be­come “re­al­is­tic”.

Peter Jen­nings says he fears mil­i­tary con­flict is in­evitable un­less “ac­tive steps are taken” to get the US and North Korea to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Oth­ers ad­vo­cat­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion say the endgame must be a for­mal peace treaty on the penin­sula, which re­mains of­fi­cially in a state of war, since the

Korean War hos­til­i­ties ceased with an armistice and not a treaty.

They say it would have to in­volve North Korea giv­ing up its nu­clear am­bi­tions and the US re­mov­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence, with the two Koreas re­main­ing per­ma­nently sep­a­rated.

For now, what­ever is go­ing on in the back­ground, it’s the US’s pub­lic po­si­tion­ing rais­ing eye­brows.

When the state depart­ment’s Heather Nauert was chal­lenged on Tues­day about a con­fus­ing de­part­men­tal tweet on North Korea’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, she lamented the lack of depth 140 char­ac­ters al­lowed.

“Does that mean that you think that 140-char­ac­ter tweets are per­haps not the best way to con­vey for­eign pol­icy mes­sages?” a jour­nal­ist asked.

Nauert was onto the im­pli­ca­tions. “I’m not go­ing to touch that one,” she

• replied.

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

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