Twenty-three words. That was apparently as much ink U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was willing to devote to North Korea after the reclusive country’s latest missile launch Wednesday.
“North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment,” Tillerson said in a curt — and unusual — statement.
Observers called the response odd and a departure from the standard State Department playbook.
“They normally cite U.N. resolutions that North Korea is breaking, denounce (them) and reaffirm allies,” said Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia. “This tersely or laconically, depending on how you read it, breaks with that.”
Bisley said there appeared to be two ways of interpreting the apparent shift in tone: it is either a complete breakdown in Washington’s inter-agency security process — the result of the still-incomplete transition — or is inspired by the approach of President Donald Trump in which unpredictability in foreign policy is seen as a virtue.
“My sense is that it’s the latter,” Bisley said.
The White House has taken a noticeably more hard-line stance on North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons ahead of Trump’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Friday in Florida.
One senior administration official was quoted Tuesday as warning that the “clock has now run out” on Pyongyang.
The Trump administration has also reportedly finished its review of its North Korea policy.
“The administration is mindful of wanting to signal that things are not as they were. And that there is some significant change of course in U.S. DPRK policy in the offing,” Bisley said, using the acronym for the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
But Bisley said it remained unclear whether this shift would happen and if it did, what it would entail.
“The Trump administration is good on atmospherics and messaging but so far much less effective on actual policy,” he said. “Given that North Korea policy requires coordination among not only State, Defense, intelligence agencies and the White House … but also among South Korea and Japan, it’s going to be complex but it seems that they may be serious about coming up with a new approach to what is now an old problem.”
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