Tillerson: By the way, we're chatting up Pyongyang these days

Perhaps the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt has dawned on both Washington and the Kim regime in North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tod reporters while in China that the two governments have three direct channels of bilateral communication, a perhaps surprising shift from US insistence that all negotiations take place in a multilateral format:

Speaking off-camera with reporters during his trip to China’s capital, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that the administration is speaking to North Korea “directly, through our own channels.”

“We have lines of communication to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” he said from the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Beijing. “We can talk to them. We do talk to them.”

The point of this is obvious — to reassure the world that the two countries aren’t going to war tomorrow. The increasingly vitriolic personal attacks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have leaders worried that a misstep at this point would lead directly to a nuclear attack, in one direction or the other. Tillerson wants to calm the diplomatic and media waters by letting people know that the US and North Korea have escape valves to deal with the increasing pressure.

That, however, raises some questions. For at least the last twelve years, the US has insisted on multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. The revelation that Pyongyang had built nuclear weapons in defiance of the 1994 Agreed Framework — the product of direct, bilateral negotiations — the US has insisted that all of the regional stakeholders had to be at the table to ensure compliance with any future pact. The Kim regime has demanded direct talks with the US instead, largely to promote its self-proclaimed status as the only legitimate authority on the Korean Peninsula. That’s why Kim Jong-un has ignored repeated offers from new South Korean president Moon Jae-in for bilateral peace talks since Moon’s election.

Has the Trump administration changed that policy? If so, does that mean that the US is prepared to accept North Korea’s nuclear status as a fait accompliThere may be good pragmatic, realpolitik justifications for that change, but it still would be a significant shift from the public policies of the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It could also hint that Russia may have taken over as the most direct influence on the Korean crisis. Just two weeks ago, their deputy foreign minister complained openly about the US insistence on multilateral talks:

North Korea is “very interested” in discussing the mounting tension on the Korean peninsula directly with the U.S., a top Russian diplomat told state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday.

“Pyongyang is very interested in direct dialogue with Washington,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told journalists in Moscow, hinting that he blamed Washington for the lack of diplomacy. “I do not have confidence that the U.S. administration has enough political will and decision for such a dialogue,” he added.

Russia and the U.S. both oppose the North Korean regime’s nuclear arms ambitions, however, the two are at a major impasse on how to curb the program. Russia and China have opposed U.S. reinforcement of and military drills with its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea.

At the time, Tillerson suggested that bilateral talks would be possible, but only after North Korea stopped launching missiles and testing nukes. Suddenly, here’s Tillerson talking openly about bilateral communications channels without either of those conditions having been met. Perhaps as interestingly, guess which topic never came up in public remarks during his meeting in Beijing?

Tillerson’s remarks came after a day of meetings with top officials, including Chinese President Xi Jinping — meetings that saw both sides strike a careful, conciliatory tone.

In a series of opening remarks, Tillerson did not so much as mention North Korea and nor, for that matter, did the Chinese.

Instead, both sides tried to keep the focus on President Trump’s upcoming Asia visit, which Xi promised would be a “special, wonderful, and successful” event.

Hmmmm. The US has been trying to get Russia to exert influence on Pyongyang for years; they’ve been part of the six-nation talks, and share a short border with North Korea, as well as being a major power on Kim’s doorstep anyway. There’s nothing new about engaging Moscow on the issue, and it could be that the Russians want the Trump administration to pursue those channels first before going along on anything tougher. From the White House perspective, it appears that they’re getting about as much out of China as possible, which makes this at least a checkbox item to head off a conflict. But if it means cutting out Japan and South Korea from any agreement, we’ll also be on our own when the Kim regime reneges again. Not if … when.