Tillerson Rules Out a Containment Strategy for North Korea


U.S. again offers talks without preconditions, warns of military option

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson PHOTO:JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday the U.S. wants to have a dialogue with North Korea “anytime,” backing away from Washington’s previous demand that Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons before they come to the table. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out pursuing a traditional Cold War-style containment and deterrence strategy against a nuclear-armed North Korea, citing concerns that Pyongyang will transform its arsenal into a commercial business and sell nuclear weapons to other actors.

“Many people have asked the question, ‘Well, why can’t you live with a containment strategy? You lived with it with Russia. You lived with it with China,’” Mr. Tillerson said. “The difference is that with the past behavior of North Korea, it is clear to us that they would not just use the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This would become a commercial activity for them.”

President Donald Trump has long said he won’t tolerate a North Korea with nuclear weapons capable of striking American shores. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo warned in September that North Korea was willing to share its nuclear arms technology with “lots of folks,” including potentially Iran. And a U.N. report last March detailed how North Korea attempted to sell nuclear material to unidentified international buyers in 2016.

Mr. Tillerson’s comments on Tuesday to an audience at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington made clear that the Trump administration sees the possibility of nuclear technology sales as reason enough to quash the possibility of a deterrence strategy—which would de facto accept North Korea as a nuclear power while preventing Pyongyang from using the weapons through mutually assured destruction.

The secretary of State said the U.S. had already seen elements of North Korea’s commercial nuclear activity in the marketplace and couldn’t accept that development, particularly in a world where hostile nonstate groups pose some of the greatest threats to the U.S. Unlike the Soviet Union and China, Mr. Tillerson said, North Korea has no record whatsoever of abiding by international norms.

“That’s the reason the president and I agree with his assessment that we simply cannot accept a nuclear armed North Korea,” Mr. Tillerson said. He vowed to pursue diplomacy with Mr. Kim “until the first bomb drops” but reiterated that U.S. military options remained on the table.

North Korea has conducted three intercontinental ballistic missile launches since last summer and six nuclear weapons tests since 2006. The growing pace and complexity of the tests in recent months has alarmed officials in Washington, who have spearheaded a pressure campaign against Pyongyang, including the harshest international sanctions ever applied on North Korea, in an effort to induce Mr. Kim to give up his program.

Last summer, Mr. Tillerson said the U.S. wanted to enter a dialogue with North Korea only if Pyongyang comes to the table assuming it will give up its nuclear weapons. But the top U.S. diplomat since has tempered that stance and opened the door to talks without preconditions, even as he has admitted that North Korea has never been a reliable counterpart in talks.

“We have said from the diplomatic side we are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” Mr. Tillerson said Tuesday. “Let’s just meet.”

Mr. Tillerson said the first meeting would allow both sides to put everything they want on the table and get started. He warned, however, it would be “tough to talk” if in the middle of the talks, North Korea tested another device.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is continuing efforts to step up pressure on Pyongyang. Mr. Trump has been pressuring China to place a full oil embargo on North Korea to stop the tests and bring Pyongyang into negotiations, but critics have raised human rights concerns about the impact that such an embargo would have on North Korean citizens in the middle of the winter.

Mr. Tillerson appeared to back the president’s rationale for a full oil embargo. “The last time the North Koreans came to the table, it was because China cut the oil off,” he said. “Three days later, the North Koreans were at the table talking.”

He said China was taking steps to prepare for North Korean refugees flowing over the border, in the event of an internal crisis in Pyongyang or a military conflict. He said such refugee flows are something China can manage and that the threat isn’t as significant as others have suggested.

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