U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday the military “option is on the table” if North Korea escalates its nuclear-weapons program “to a level that we believe requires action.” Do these remarks mark a break from the Obama administration’s policy toward Pyongyang, or do they mark a return to a familiar phrase in diplomacy?
The phrase about the military “option being on the table” itself isn’t new. What’s new, argues Jon Wolfsthal, who worked on arms-control and nonproliferation issues in President Obama’s National Security Council, is “saying we won’t talk at all.” Tillerson ruled out any talks with the North until it commits to renouncing nuclear weapons.
“It is a departure,” Wolfsthal said, because both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush had talked to North Korea until Pyongyang either pulled out of talks (with Obama) or cheated on its treaty obligations (with Bush). “And I think makes it less likely that we’ll get the type of cooperation from South Korea or China because they want to understand what our policy is.”
Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, argues that while Tillerson’s remarks represent a rhetorical change from the Obama years, the Trump administration’s policies toward the region are the same. He points out that since 2012, when the U.S. last conducted negotiations with the North, “serious diplomacy with North Korea was made impossible after Pyongyang refused to acknowledge its past commitments to denuclearization.” Denmark argues the Trump administration’s rhetoric on the region hasn’t matched its actions. Indeed, Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Seoul last month to reassure U.S. allies of the continued U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense. The Pentagon then fulfilled the Obama administration’s pledge to deploy THAAD, the anti-missile defense system, to South Korea.