Policy disputes on North Korea are playing out in public. What does that do to diplomacy?


Judy Woodruff: North Korea was again today the focus at the United Nations Security Council, at the end of a week that saw apparent confusion between the president and his secretary of state over the right course to pursue.

As William Brangham reports, all this as new questions of Rex Tillerson's job security surfaced.

President Donald Trump: We're going to see what happens with North Korea. We hope it works out.

William Brangham: That was President Trump this morning, shortly before his top diplomat appeared at the United Nations to again press the case against North Korea.

Rex Tillerson: The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearization is achieved. We will in the meantime keep our channels of communication open.

William Brangham: But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to back off comments he'd made Tuesday where he offered an open invitation to the North for talks.

Rex Tillerson: And we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let's just meet.

William Brangham: That was a marked shift in tone after months of tough statements from the president and other officials.

Tillerson's comments, which seemed to drop any preconditions for talks with the North Koreans, was swiftly swatted down by the White House. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, quote- "The president's views on North Korea have not changed." It was one more flashpoint in the increasingly strained relationship between the president and his secretary of state.

This summer, Mr. Trump dismissed Tillerson's diplomatic efforts as, quote, "wasting his time negotiating with little rocket man," a reference to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

And it came amid a barrage of media reports suggesting the president is planning to fire Tillerson.

The Washington Post reported that one senior official said of Tillerson, quote, "I think our allies know at this point, he's not really speaking for the administration."

Rex Tillerson: The president's policy on North Korea is quite clear, and there is no daylight at all between the president's policy and the pursuit of that policy.

William Brangham: Today, Tillerson said he and Mr. Trump are on the same page.

Rex Tillerson: As I said earlier this week, a sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin. North Korea must earn its way back to the table.

William Brangham: All this comes as the administration, and some congressional allies, say time is running out for diplomacy, and that the U.S. is edging closer to war. And this afternoon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said North Korea's missiles had not shown to be a, quote, capable threat against us, right now.

We hear now from two who've had extensive experience negotiating with the North Koreans. Christopher Hill was a career diplomat. He served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and led the U.S. delegation in talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration. He's now at the University of Denver.

And Frank Jannuzi was part of the U.S. delegation during talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration. He's now president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Frank Jannuzi, I would love to start with you. What is your sense of how negotiations or talks are going with the North Koreans right now?

Frank Jannuzi: Well, of course, they're not going, and that's the problem. In Washington, it's not unlikely or unusual to have policy disagreements over North Korea, but to have it play out in public between the president and the secretary of state is terribly gruesome to watch. And the last 48 hours have been especially tough.

William Brangham: Ambassador Hill, what would you add to that? Gruesome? How would you characterize it?

Christopher Hill: Well, first of all, I don't think there is been much change in the situation with North Korea and, yet, we've now had this desultory dialogue in effect between our secretary of state and president where our secretary of state is now sort of conflating the idea of pre-conditions with having a purpose to the talks and suggested the other day that we don't even need a purpose to the talks. And so, of course, that was walked back as it needed to be and now, he's kind of on the other end of the spectrum.

And so, I think it is, to use Frank's word, rather gruesome.

William Brangham: Frank, as we said, there have been internal debates within administrations for a long time. But with this sort of Damocles hanging over Tillerson, this sort of denigrating of his efforts by the president when he's in Asia, saying don't bother negotiating with rocket man, this constant threat that he might be fired, what does that do to our diplomacy?

Frank Jannuzi: Well, the United States needs the secretary of state to speak for the government, for the administration. Clearly Tillerson's voice has been undercut, second guessed repeatedly by the White House. What's ironic here is that Tillerson and his ambassador, Joseph Yun, the point man on North Korean policy at State, I believe are more loyal to the president's policy than the president is.

The policy is one of engagement with maximum pressure. And you need both. One doesn't make sense without the other, but the president seems not to be very interested in the engagement part of his own policy, at least not right now.

William Brangham: Ambassador Hill, what does this rift, if we can call it that, do to our ability to work with our allies, with South Korea, with Japan? Do you have a sense of whether they're confused by this or do they just assume this is part and parcel of how diplomacy happens?

Christopher Hill: Well, at best, they're confused. But at worst, they're rather alarmed by the fact that the secretary of state is clearly not an extension of the president. So when the secretary of state speaks, they have no reason to believe this is where the president is or, frankly, where his National Security Council staff is.

So, I think there's a real problem here. And I thought in the early months of Tillerson's tenure at the State Department, he spent a good amount of time trying to make sure he was in closely with the president, and what we're seeing now is that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

What is interesting about this all is the secretary of state is trying to show our allies that we're prepared to talk to the North Koreans, we're not afraid to talk, but right now people are not believing him. But at the same time, at the same time, they're also concerned that somehow the president will say tomorrow that he's prepared to talk to Kim Jong-un, something he said in the past.

So, there's a lot of confusion and, overall, it means that countries including China don't necessarily want to take us — be with us every step of the way because they never know what our next step is going to be.

William Brangham: Frank Jannuzi, one place where apparently there are talks happening is between the U.S. military and the Chinese military. Apparently they have been having a conversation about what to do, how to communicate, if a conflict were to break out, so that we understand each other's intentions.

How significant do you think that? Do you believe those talks are happening and how significant are they?

Frank Jannuzi: I believe the talks are happening, and it's a very significant forward progress in U.S.-China policy coordination. For years during the Clinton administration and the Bush administration and even the Obama administration, there were efforts to try to get China to speak with the United States about what would we do in a worse-case crisis, a North Korea collapse, a conflict on the peninsula, to avoid miscalculation between the United States and China.

And so, the fact that these talks are happening, I believe they are, at a military and intelligence level, is very promising. It suggests that the two countries are getting beyond some of the Cold War legacies of the peninsula and are being very practical to avoid a conflict on the peninsula becoming a global conflict between the United States and China.

William Brangham: Ambassador Hill, it seems the situation we've got ourselves in now is that the U.S. wants talks to at least at the baseline be about the denuclearization of North Korea. The North Koreans have said we are not having that conversation.

So, where does that impasse leave us? What — how do we get around that diplomatically or do we have to somehow come to grips with the fact that the North Koreans are going to be a nuclear power going forward?

Chris Hill: Well, my own view is we should not–we cannot– come to grips with that idea. We can't in effect say North Korea can be another nuclear power. I think, over time, there will be a perception, especially among the South Korean and Japanese people that the bond between the United States and these countries, that is the influence of the U.S. in this part of Asia, will weaken and that, over time, we will decouple from these allies.

So, that's the real risk of this. I mean, when Kim Jong un talks about what he wants to do, that is nuclearize North Korea, that is really to finish his father's unfinished business, and he also talks about unification and that is to finish his grandfather's unfinished business. And in the case of his grandfather, it was unfinished because of the presence of American troops. In the case of his father, he did not succeed in nuclearizing because he cared about what China thought. And so, we've seen this Kim, Kim Jong-un, distancing North Korea from China, from the alliance with China.

So, I think these are very serious problems, and I think it speaks to the need for more of these U.S.-China talks and a more comprehensive approach and really an effort to really work on this every day and dare I say maybe fewer press conferences from the secretary of state and more efforts to have serious and prolonged discussions with key allies and partners.

William Brangham: All right. Ambassador Chris Hill, Frank Jannuzi, thank you both very much.

Frank Jannuzi:  Thank you.

Chris Hill: Thank you.

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