In what appears to be a departure from the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently signaled that he is open to negotiating with Pyongyang without preconditions.
It may seem that this announcement indicates that the administration is softening its stance towards North Korea — but that might not be the case. President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that while the U.S. does not wish for war with Pyongyang, he is willing to do what is necessary to prevent Pyongyang from becoming an even greater threat.
While speaking at an event at the Atlantic Council, Tillerson stated that he is willing to sit down with representatives from North Korea to begin the process of resolving the issues between the two countries. “We’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” he said. “Let’s just meet. And we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face,” he added.
While the secretary expressed his desire to negotiate with Pyongyang, he also called for a freeze in North Korean missile tests. He indicated that the president — who has repeatedly traded verbal barbs with Kim Jong Un — is “pretty realistic” about the necessity of dialogue with North Korea.
As the North Korean threat becomes more dangerous, Tillerson’s offer might indicate that the Trump administration is acting with a heightened sense of urgency. With every missile test, Pyongyang inches closer to obtaining the means to launch a devastating attack on the United States and its allies.
A few weeks ago, the regime demonstrated that it had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike anywhere in the United States. Even worse, the regime could be preparing to conduct another nuclear test.
Another Nuclear Test
Despite the threats and sanctions, the North Korean regime is continuing to move forward with its nuclear program. The Korea Times recently reported that the regime appears to be making preparations for another nuclear test. They cite a joint analysis released by 38 North, a website that specializes in issues pertaining to North Korea.
According to the report, unusual activity was detected at the West Portal, which leads to an unused tunnel complex. Five of the country’s last six tests took place at the North Portal.
“Despite the continuation of small tremors near Mt. Mantap since North Korea’s last nuclear test, tunnel work at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site is still underway,” they wrote. “These efforts continue to be concentrated at the West Portal, leaving the North Portal…mostly dormant and likely abandoned, at least for the time being. At the West Portal, there has been a consistently high level of activity since North Korea’s last nuclear test.”
The activity outlined in the report includes the presence of vehicles and personnel in the vicinity of the portal and the movement of mining carts. These findings indicate that the regime is excavating the tunnel to create more space for future nuclear tests.
The possibility of another nuclear test, along with the fact that Pyongyang has launched sixteen missile tests since February demonstrates the rogue regime’s commitment to pursuing its nuclear program, despite the widespread starvation being experienced by the North Korean population. It is not surprising that the Trump administration is willing to have talks with Pyongyang.
The Carrot And The Stick
North Korea’s development of its nuclear program has continued to be a serious source of concern for the Trump administration. The president has repeatedly warned Kim Jong Un that his country’s flouting of the international community will have dire consequences. The administration has also threatened that military action is still on the table.
Even Tillerson’s overture to the North Korean regime was tempered with a stern admonishment. “I will continue our diplomatic efforts until the first bomb drops,” he said. “I’m going to be confident that we’re going to be successful, but I’m also confident [Defense Secretary James] Mattis will be successful if it ends up being his turn.”
Some have suggested that Tillerson’s comments are a sign that the Trump administration might be willing to settle for a containment strategy in which we learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. However, the secretary had already said that containment is not an option the administration is considering.
If North Korea became a nuclear power, they wouldn’t simply use their newfound advantage to deter an attack. Instead, they would sell their technology to entities that could use it to create more devastation. The last thing the West needs is for a country like North Korea to supply nuclear arms to hostile nations like Iran, or terrorist groups like the Islamic State.