More than twenty years after the US agreed to fund a supposedly peaceful nuclear-energy program in North Korea in exchange for promises not to develop nuclear weapons, Rex Tillerson declared diplomacy dead in dealing with the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang. The Kim regime can’t be trusted to stick to the deals when offered carrots, and sanctions as a stick doesn’t appear to work all that much better. The Secretary of State, speaking on his first trip to visit allies in Asia, said the Pacific Rim needed a new strategy to deal with North Korea:
It’s time to take a “different approach” to dealing with North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Tokyo on Thursday, because 20 years of diplomacy had “failed” to convince the regime in Pyongyang to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Tillerson’s comments will fuel fears in the region that military options might be on the table to deter North Korea — an approach that could prove devastating for Seoul, where more than 20 million people live within North Korean artillery range.
And that would be … what, exactly? Tillerson didn’t offer any specifics, but the subtext wasn’t exactly subtle:
He declined to go into specifics about what a “different approach” might entail. The Trump administration is now conducting a review of North Korea policy and some in Washington are advocating “kinetic options” — a euphemism for military action.
However, Tillerson also sounded something of a [conciliatory] note. “North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea,” he said in opening remarks.
The declaration took place in Japan, which has the second-most to lose in a new war on the Korean peninsula. Tillerson’s remarks didn’t appear out of step with Tokyo’s take, however, as his counterpart Fumio Kishida also stated that the threats from North Korea had entered “a new stage.” That might relate to its recent advancement in solid-fuel missiles, or perhaps the fact that Pyongyang has engaged in assassinations with VX nerve agent — in a public airport of one of its few friends, Malaysia, which has suspended all diplomatic contacts as a result. Clearly, diplomacy didn’t matter to North Korea in that instance, so it’s unlikely to matter much to the Kim regime when it comes to the US and Japan.
If diplomacy with Pyongyang is useless, where does that leave the US and its allies? None of them want to start a war now, especially not South Korea, which just impeached its president and is in the middle of a political crisis. Short of war, the only option is to put pressure on China, and that seems to be the point of all the talk about “kinetic options,” too. Beijing trotted out a compromise last week that would have had North Korea suspend its missile tests if the US and South Korea suspended its joint military exercises, but the Kim regime rejected it even before the US did. Tillerson and Kishida are telling China that they have tired of Beijing’s excuses and protection of the Kims, and the time has come for them to take action. The rattling of sabers — and especially the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system — is obviously designed to let Beijing know that the US sees the options coming down to someone taking action, and a hint that China might prefer to handle it themselves rather than have American and Japanese troops on their doorstep taking care of business instead.
Speaking of Malaysia, North Korea now insists that the assassination of Kim Jong-nam was a conspiracy between Seoul and Washington. They want the body, and in the meantime both nations are still holding each other’s citizens as hostages:
A North Korean diplomat said Thursday the killing of a man confirmed by Malaysian police to be the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader was a political conspiracy engineered by Washington and Seoul.
Pak Myong Ho, a minister at North Korea’s embassy in Beijing, said the Feb. 13 murder of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia was a “despicable and extremely dangerous” plot by the U.S. and South Korea aimed at smearing North Korea’s image and subverting its regime. …
North Korea has blocked Malaysians from leaving the country until a “fair settlement” of the case is reached. Malaysia then barred North Koreans from exiting its soil. The two countries have also scrapped visa-free travel for each other’s citizens.
With friends like this, what use is there for diplomats?