U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that Washington is not seeking regime change in North Korea and would be open to dialogue, a stance seemingly at odds with President Donald Trump and officials in the administration.
Tillerson, in a rare news conference marking six months since his swearing-in, said the U.S. was not aiming to topple North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or looking for “an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.”
“We do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel,” Tillerson said. “And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.”
The nuclear-armed North conducted the second test-firing of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in less than a month late Friday. Experts said that launch saw the missile fly higher and longer than the first, and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — potentially within range of Pyongyang’s ever-improving weapons systems.
Analysts said the isolated country’s first test of the Hwasong-14 on July 4 had a possible maximum range of 6,700 km, putting Alaska within striking distance.
Tillerson said the breakneck pace of the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs was one of the Trump administration’s most urgent foreign policy issues, noting that it was the first issue the White House had confronted. But Trump has pinned much of his strategy for halting Pyongyang’s advances on China pressuring the Kim regime. The White House, however, has seen little progress on that front, with the North conducting at least 14 known missile tests since January.
While Trump has said several times that all options — including military strikes — remain on the table, his defense chief and other leading officials have said such a move would be “catastrophic,” as Pyongyang would likely target U.S. allies Japan and South Korea in retaliation, potentially leading to mass casualties.
Despite repeated denials by officials including Pentagon chief James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster about the possibility of war erupting on the Korean Peninsula, fears of a conflict have persisted due to mixed messages emanating from the administration.
This was on full display Tuesday when Sen. Lindsey Graham said in an interview that Trump had told him war between the U.S. and North Korea over the rogue nation’s missile program was imminent if Pyongyang continued to aim its long-range missiles at America.
“He has told me that. I believe him,” Graham said on NBC’s “Today.” “If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”
Graham said that Trump won’t allow the Kim regime to have a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of striking the U.S. His comments came amid a report saying Washington and Seoul were weighing returning two U.S. aircraft carriers to the waters off the Korean Peninsula for joint drills this month, the Yonhap news agency said, citing South Korean government sources.
Beyond military strikes, officials in the Trump administration, including CIA chief Mike Pompeo, have also hinted that Washington was open to the possibility of regime change, a move that has angered Pyongyang and reinforced its belief that negotiations to denuclearize would be fruitless.
The North condemned Pompeo’s remarks, with state media retorting that they had made clear “that the ultimate aim of the Trump administration’s hostile policy towards the DPRK is … regime change.”
The North Korean regime has cited the deaths of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — who both gave up nascent nuclear programs for concessions from the West and were later killed or ousted — as justifying its need to possess what it calls “defensive” atomic weapons.
The administration, including Trump, has also flirted with the idea of talking to Kim. This approach has failed to gain much traction due to the U.S. precondition that the North must first denuclearize before talks.
Tillerson reiterated this stance Tuesday, saying the U.S. would continue its campaign of “peaceful pressure.”
“We felt the appropriate thing to do first was to seek peaceful pressure on the regime … to have them develop a willingness to sit and talk with us and others, but with an understanding that a condition of those talks is there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less to the homeland,” he said.
For Trump himself, solving the North Korean issue also holds tremendous interest. The president has bypassed traditional means of communicating U.S. policy by tweeting out his thoughts on the North and other issues numerous times, vowing in January that Pyongyang wouldn’t acquire an ICBM that could hit the U.S. on his watch. He has also blasted China for doing what he says is too little to solve the problem, despite the economic leverage it has over its poverty-stricken neighbor.
Susan DiMaggio, who led a delegation of American experts and at least one U.S. government official for informal talks with North Korean officials in Oslo in May, said Trump’s tweets and the at-odds comments coming out of the White House presented a unique danger — “either by design or by accident.”
“Contradictory messages from various members of the administration can lead to misreadings by the North Koreans, especially during this period of heightened tensions,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a director and senior fellow at the New America think tank in Washington.
As for Trump’s tweets, DiMaggio said they only served to “increase the risk of misinterpretation.”
In his January tweet, Trump “seemed to be drawing a red line, but it’s unclear — and this is a moment that demands consistency and clarity,” she said.
Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, called Tillerson’s remarks “interesting and dismaying in equal measure.”
“On the one hand it’s refreshing to see a public recognition that dialogue and negotiation is on the table and that the U.S. is trying its hand at less inflammatory public diplomacy,” Bisley said. “But on the other, the messaging from the executive branch is poorly coordinated and muddies the water pretty badly.”
Bisley said while the precondition for talks would likely fall flat with the North Koreans, “it may be a sign that the U.S. is beginning to grapple with the reality that the military option is unviable and it needs to figure out how to diplomatically defuse this problem.”
At his news conference Tuesday, Tillerson also worked to tamp down the nagging suspicion among some that Trump’s “America First” policy meant potentially leaving its allies in the lurch.
With North Korea now threatening the U.S. mainland, these concerns are likely to grow among its allies, namely Japan and South Korea, which fear Washington may withdraw its security guarantees if forced to choose between Tokyo and Seoul or Los Angeles and New York.
“I think the president has been clear though that when we say America First it doesn’t mean America alone, and we do value our friends and allies,” Tillerson said. “We recognize and acknowledge our adversaries and our enemies, and we tend to think about our relationships in those types of terms.
“America First is not America alone,” he added.
Graham, however, said Trump had told him that while a conflict would kill “thousands” — a figure that experts said was more likely in the hundreds of thousands — it would be “over there” in Northeast Asia.
“If there’s going to be a war to stop (Kim), it will be over there,” Graham said. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face.
“And that may be provocative, but not really,” he added. “When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”
Military experts, he added, are “wrong” that no good options exist.
“There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” he said.