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Will Tillerson’s tougher talk get Kim Jong-un to the table?

March 17, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
In South Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared “the policy of strategic patience has ended” and laid out the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, about the significance of Tillerson’s words at a time of mounting tensions and uncertainty about leadership in the South.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at one of the most tense places on the planet, the border between North and South Korea, it’s the second of his stops on an important, three-country, whirlwind tour of Asia, where allies and adversaries are both close at hand.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From South Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled a tougher line on dealing with North Korea, including the possibility of a preemptive military strike.

REX TILLERSON: Certainly, we do not want to — for things to get to a military conflict. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tillerson spoke in Seoul after visiting the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, and the truce village of Panmunjom. North Korean soldiers looked on, snapping pictures.

The secretary arrived at a time of mounting tensions. North Korea has test-fired ballistic missiles twice in the last three weeks, as U.S. and South Korean troops conduct elaborate, annual joint exercises. The North also carried out two nuclear tests last year.

Yesterday in Japan, the secretary said 20 years of attempts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions have failed.

REX TILLERSON: In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. The purpose of — part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This morning, President Trump weighed in via Twitter. He wrote: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been playing the United States for years. China has done little to help.”

The Chinese have condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. But they also oppose deployment of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, known as THAAD, to South Korea.

Tillerson answered today in Seoul, before heading to Beijing tomorrow.

REX TILLERSON: While we acknowledge China’s opposition, its economic retaliation against South Korea is inappropriate and troubling. We ask China to refrain from such action.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The South Korean foreign minister underscored the U.S. argument that the missile defense system is not aimed at China. But the recent ouster of South Korea’s president, in a corruption scandal, could change the landscape. The liberal candidate favored to win the presidency in May says he will review the THAAD deployment, and consult with China.

For more on the secretary’s trip to Asia, and the significance of what Tillerson had to say in South Korea, we turn to veteran diplomat Kathleen Stephens. She was U.S. ambassador to South Korea during the Obama administration. She’s now at Stanford University.

How significant were the secretary’s remarks?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS, Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea: Well, I think they were very significant, and closely listened to and heard throughout the region, as well as here.

In fact, I think it’s first somewhat extensive press conferences as secretary of state. It was indeed a very tough message, but I also think he picked his words pretty carefully. And a lot of what he had to say was a reinforcement of what had been the Obama administration policy, but I think an indication that he wants to toughen it up even more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is this our chief diplomat saying diplomacy hasn’t been working, the talking hasn’t been working?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Well, in fact, there hasn’t been much talking with North Korea over the eight years.

And one thing that did strike me about Secretary Tillerson’s remarks was that he was quite specific and categorical in saying now is not the time for talks. I actually would have liked to have seen him keep the door a little bit ajar on that, because I think, when you do have a new administration in Washington, there will soon be a new administration in Seoul, there’s a good argument for trying to climb that mountain one more time and seeing what’s possible diplomatically, because at the very least, it helps you build coalitions you need to increase the pressure if the diplomatic approach doesn’t work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He’s advocating tougher sanctions. Will tougher sanctions work against North Korea?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Well, sanctions are a very blunt instrument.

And sanctions have been — against North Korea have been progressively tightened and broadened through Security Council resolutions, through bilateral action by the United States, by actions by South Korea and Japan.

China has also participated, although, of course, there’s never been satisfaction, I think, with China doing or a sense that China is doing as much as it possibly could.

But will sanctions work? I think they can bring pressure on the regime, and they are bringing pressure. Will they lead Kim Jong-un to make a strategic choice that he’s ready to trade his nuclear and missile program for a lessening of sanctions and for other benefits?

I think that the chances of that working are far less promising perhaps than they ever have been. But it doesn’t mean you give up on sanctions. But I think it means it has to be only one part of your approach.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Given what we know and we don’t know about North Korea’s leader, is this the type of thing that prods him to come to the table, or does it just anger him more? And, at times, his actions have not been predictable.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Well, I think what we know about Kim Jong-un, who has now been in power for five years, is that a priority, his priority has been to accelerate and consolidate his nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capability.

And to date, the sanctions, the isolation, the — and, for that matter, the carrots that have been offered to him to do otherwise have not been sufficient. So, I am pessimistic about them. But I think that continued pressure is important, because you don’t know what the timeline is for getting somebody to the table.

And I think Secretary Tillerson is right. Indeed, it was something that the Obama administration emphasized, that China also plays a very important role. But I think sanctions have to be combined with some kind of exit ramp. And the ramp has to be into something that allows him to start to make some adjustments.

And given where he is in the program, we may have to lower our sights about what he needs to do to get into talks. And this was one part of Mr. Tillerson’s presentation that concerned me a bit. He stated, perhaps for tactical reasons, a kind of a maximalist approach, which has long been an approach which has — that basically North Korea needs to give up everything before we get into a diplomatic process.

I do think it is going to have to be a process, probably a slow process, but certainly the principle which was held by Obama administration, which Mr. Tillerson reinforced, that there needs to be a readiness on the part of North Korea to say they are prepared to move toward denuclearization, is an important prerequisite.

And that is one that the Chinese have also agreed to and need to reinforce.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Something that has been of interest in South Korea is not who Mr. Tillerson met with, but who he didn’t meet with. He didn’t seem to meet with any of the opposition leaders. And he kind of talked to an administration that is a lame-duck.

How significant are things — or how much is it likely to change after South Korea has a new election?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Right.

It’s always a tricky question in the middle of an election campaign is how you can manage those meetings. So, I have some sympathy with the diplomatic nuances of trying to do that.

But, certainly, I mean, less than two months’ time, South Korea will have a new president. The election is on May 9. And that new president will take power, I guess, immediately.

And it looks now that it’s going to be most likely a president from the part of the political spectrum that has tended to lean towards trying a little harder on the engagement angle with North Korea.

In any event, I think any new South Korean will want to look at the options for that. And I think it will be very important not to close off too many options before that new government gets in place, and then to see with Seoul, as well as with Beijing, what, along with deepened pressure, deepened sanctions, more countries participating and pressuring North Korea, what might be possible in terms of a fresh diplomatic approach, some kind of grand bargain that addresses our core interest in seeing all of the Korean Peninsula denuclearize — and that means no nuclear weapons in North Korea — but finds a way to get into some kind of talks on that basis.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Kathleen Stephens, thanks so much.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: My pleasure.

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