Trump undermines Tillerson
US secretary of state ‘wasting time’ on North Korea, claims president
US officials have tried to play down Donald Trump’s opposition to the possibility of talks with North Korea, saying the president and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, were in agreement on how to deal with the regime.
Last Sunday, a day after Tillerson said the US had direct lines of communication to North Korea and was “probing” to find ways to resolve escalating nuclear tension between the two countries, Trump tweeted that his top diplomat should “save his energy” as “we’ll do what has to be done!”
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president wrote from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, using the nickname he has adopted for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
But state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert and Tillerson’s chief public affairs adviser, RC Hammond, later took to Twitter to deny that Washington was sending out mixed messages.
“DPRK [ Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will not obtain a nuclear capability,” Nauert wrote. “Whether through diplomacy or force is up to the regime … Diplomatic channels are open for KimJongUn for now. They won’t be open forever.”
Hammond said Trump’s tweets were not a rebuke to Tillerson but were intended to send a message to Kim that time was running out for a diplomatic solution. “Channels have been open for months. They’ve been unused and cooling for months,” he said. “The president just sent a clear message to NK: show up at the diplomatic table before the invitation gets cold,” he added in another tweet.
One senior Trump administration official played down the significance of the communication channels, which include Washington and Pyongyang’s United Nations missions, regular exchanges between senior diplomats, and unofficial discussions between North Korean officials and former US officials.
“At a time when North Korea is continuing its provocations, the president does not think now is the time to negotiate with them,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official also said diplomatic channels between Washington and Pyongyang were designed to secure the return of Americans detained by North Korea.
The president’s Twitter outburst threatened not only to further escalate the North Korea crisis, but to undermine the nation’s top diplomat at a highly sensitive moment. Tillerson was speaking in Beijing, where he met China’s President Xi Jinping.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she saw some method in Trump’s messaging. “I do think that when he sometimes will tweet things like: ‘Negotiations are a waste of time, we have to move to the possibility of war,’ he is trying to help build some leverage for diplomacy. Ultimately there is really no solution other than diplomacy. I think even Trump knows that.”
Glaser said that she believed such tweets were deliberately “aimed at scaring the North Koreans and scaring the Chinese also”.
“I can’t say whether [the tweeted threats] are effective with North Korea, but they are not likely effective with the Chinese,” Glaser added. “The Chinese are more likely to cooperate with a US president that is consistent, predictable and reliable.”
Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have grown as North Korea has tested missiles and a nuclear device, part of its aim to develop a nuclear weapon that could reach the US mainland. Several missiles fired have flown over Japan, and Pyongyang threatened to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific ocean.
Tillerson met Xi last Saturday, saying in opening remarks that relations between the two countries would “grow and mature on the strength of the relationship between yourself and President Trump”.
Trump is expected to visit Beijing in November.
Straight talking? Donald Trump and secretary of state Rex Tillerson