Trump un­der­mines Tiller­son

US sec­re­tary of state ‘wast­ing time’ on North Korea, claims pres­i­dent

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Guardian re­porters

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

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