Foreign Relations & International Law

The Tillerson Trip and the Hard Line Options

Stephan Haggard
Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 9:30 AM

Secretary of State Tillerson is proving to be a man of few words. The result is that there is less to parse, but what is on record is more pointed than the lengthy disquisitions of his predecessor. Six components of his Asia trip require careful reading: his assurances to allies; “20 years of failure”; sanctions; military options; negotiations; and the all-important China audience of one, Xi Jinping.

The Assurance Piece

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Secretary of State Tillerson is proving to be a man of few words. The result is that there is less to parse, but what is on record is more pointed than the lengthy disquisitions of his predecessor. Six components of his Asia trip require careful reading: his assurances to allies; “20 years of failure”; sanctions; military options; negotiations; and the all-important China audience of one, Xi Jinping.

The Assurance Piece

The American news cycle is so radically disruptive these days that it is easy to forget that the administration has substantial assurance work to do. Assurance of allies is just the flip-side of the credibility of those alliances and their deterrent effect. Such signals were clearly a subtext of President Trump's recent summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as the Tillerson trip. In his prepared comments with Prime Minister Abe, President Hwang and foreign ministers Fumio Kushida and Yun Byung-se, Tillerson was at pains to underscore the alliances (“enduring,” “unwavering,” “iron clad,” “lynchpins”) while sidestepping contentious issues such as bilateral economic relations. Tillerson emphasized the fact that Article V of the security treaty with Japan covers the disputed Senkaku Islands, alluded to strengthening trilateral cooperation between Japan, Korea and the United States, and restated of the defensive logic of THAAD.

The last issue could be one of the first points of contention with Seoul: As Korea’s Democratic Party candidates staged a debate among their top four contenders for the presidency in the wake of former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, front-runner Moon Jae-in tried to square the circle between open opponents to THAAD (Seoul mayor Lee Jae-myung) and maintaining the commitment while figuring out a way to placate Chinese opposition. President Hwang and Foreign Minister Yun were clearly doing their level best to lock THAAD in.

The “20 Years of Failure” Piece

One of the most widely-cited headlines from the trip was Tillerson’s comments that US North Korea policy has seen “20 years of a failed approach.” Such a timeline clearly encompasses all of the Bush as well as Obama administrations, extending almost all the way back to the Agreed Framework of 1994 (under which North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program). But even though Tillerson declared that Obama’s “strategic patience” was over, just saying this does not make it true. Whatever you think of it, strategic patience is just one variant of the familiar two-pronged approach of the so-called Perry approach: holding open a door to negotiations while simultaneously trying to use pressure to get North Korea back to the table. Unless the administration sees absolutely no route back to negotiations and thinks that pure pressure will succeed, the Trump administration will quickly find that is pursuing something akin to strategic patience.

The Sanctions Piece

What could a Trump administration do to up the ante? There are basically two instruments: sanctions and some use of the military. There is ambiguity in the cliché that “sanctions don’t work.” Some take the mistaken view that the nature of the North Korean regime makes it utterly invulnerable to outside pressure. This claim is dubious; the economy is clearly more open and thus more exposed than it was in the past and could well experience the kind of stresses that Iran did in the wake of coordinated sanctions. The second meaning of the “sanctions don’t work” trope is that the Chinese are not going to impose adequate sanctions to really get the North Koreans to move. As a result, the argument goes, the sanctions enforcement game is kabuki theater.

But this view is also misguided. The adminstration’s message was also clear that the US will turn over every stone to make sure that China is enforcing its commitments and other countries are brought on board. In his presser with Minister Yun in Seoul, Tillerson said that the US would be “calling upon China to fully implement sanctions, as well, in compliance with the UN Security Council resolution that it voted for.” Translation: the US does not believe that China is in fact fully enforcing sanctions to which it has already committed.

Tillerson flubbed a question on cutting off North Korea’s oil, much of which comes from or transits through China. There is no authority for the U.S, to demand that China, Russia or any other supplier cut of North Korean oil supplies. But the evidence is piling up, most recently in the UN Panel of Experts report and the Hongxiang and ZTE cases that China may be turning a blind eye to sanctioned trade, including with designated entities. China will be hard pressed to object if the U.S. undertakes secondary sanctions against Chinese firms that are in breach of UN Security Council commitments that China itself helped craft.

The Military Piece

That all options are on the table is a cliché, but it is also a true statement. Any new president should be apprised of the full range of actions that are available—diplomatic, economic, military—if only to also be apprised of their feasibility and costs. The Secretary stated clearly that the United States is not looking for conflict, again a component of the assurance strategy with respect to both allies, China and North Korea. He also made his remarks about military responses carefully conditional, saying first, “if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response”; and second, “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” Although Tillerson did not directly state that the U.S. would pre-empt, the suggestion was pretty clear.

This is a classic use of strategic ambiguity, with its well-known advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, these statements were clearly designed to generate uncertainty in Beijing and Pyongyang, and that has advantages. Given North Korea’s testing trajectory, we could determine at any time that these thresholds have been crossed. Yet at the same time, such statements run classic red-line risks. If the North Koreans do “escalate” by testing new capabilities—either nuclear or missile—and the US does not respond, then it will be read as implying that those developments are acceptable.

What Tillerson did not do was to tip the US hand on a variety of military options that fall short of outright pre-emption. These range from intercepting a missile over international waters or in Korea’s or Japan’s EEZ, troop movements and exercises, or even more forward actions such as bomber overflights of North Korea, visible SLBM probes or cyber means.

The Negotiations Piece

On negotiations with North Korea, the message appears blunt: there will be none. But a closer reading suggests more nuance and greater continuity with the strategic patience approach. First, it is clear that the Trump administration is not receptive to the core of the Chinese proposal for an interim freeze proposal as a way to get the diplomatic ball rolling. These proposals would accept a freeze on nuclear and missile testing and the generation of additional fissile material in return for a moderation or even cancellation of US exercises.

It is also clear that the U.S. does not see a quick return to the Six Party Talks. But that claim was also conditional (“So, again, conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five-party or six-party.”) The objective: to get the Chinese to make a concrete proposal that get North Korea back to the table in advance of Trump’s upcoming summit at Mar-a-Lago with Xi Jinping.

The China Piece

Tillerson’s entire visit ultimately has an audience of one: Xi Jinping. Trump’s tweet that China has done little to solve the North Korea problem is a bit churlish; after all, Beijing did put muscle behind the Six Party Talks (2003-2008) despite their ultimate demise and has recently taken a few steps such as the coal ban that could have material effect. But the tweet is not altogether wrong. Tillerson and Trump are asking not what China claims to have done, but what outcomes have resulted from those actions. Tillerson struck the right note in Beijing by emphasizing a “results oriented” relationship with China on the North Korean issue: one that did not reward effort but actual progress.

In the end, the entire trip was nothing more than an effort to set the stage for the Mar-a-Lago summit, where I suspect some kind of agreement will be reached on the issue one way or the other. If not, then this administration will have to decide how to live with its own tough talk.

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies; director, Korea-Pacific Program; and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. He works on the political economy of developing countries, with a particular interest in Asia and the Korean peninsula. Along with Marcus Noland, he runs the Witness to Transformation blog on the Korean peninsula at

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