March 17: “The era of strategic patience is over”
The following day in Seoul, Tillerson shocked the world with a statement just before meeting with South Korea’s foreign minister.
“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson says. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically-prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”
Tillerson also rejects negotiation with North Korea: “Conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume.” Observers wonder whether Tillerson is suggesting forced regime change or simply positioning the U.S. “His warning on Friday about new ways to pressure the North was far more specific and martial sounding than during the first stop of his three-country tour, in Tokyo on Thursday,” The New York Times reports. “His inconsistency of tone may have been intended to signal a tougher line to the Chinese before he lands in Beijing on Saturday.”
April 2: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will”
In an interview with the Financial Times, President Trump adopts a warlike tone as well, suggesting willingness to take unilateral military action.
“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” he says. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.” He adds: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”
April 4: “We’ve said enough”
Two days later, after Pyongyang launches a missile, Tillerson baffles the world by simply refusing to say anything at all. “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile,” he says in a statement. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
April 9: Dispatching the U.S.S. Carl Vinson
Amid increasing worries about war, the U.S. Pacific Command announces it is sending the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group toward the Korean Peninsula, in what is viewed as a threat toward North Korea. The White House and Pentagon trumpet the news, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer saying, “We are sending an armada.” It only becomes clear on April 18 that, in fact, the Vinson was 3,500 miles away and sailing the opposite direction at the time.
April 16: “The patience of the United States has run out”
By mid-April, Tillerson’s remarks about the “era of strategic patience” seem more mysterious than ever, especially given his tightlipped April 4 statement. Was the original phrase just a slip of the tongue?
Apparently not. On a trip to the DMZ, Vice President Pence repeats it. “The era of strategic patience is over,” Pence says. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change. We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable.”