Trump, Tillerson at odds on North Korea policy, negotiating tactic or sign of trouble?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Geological Survey detected a 2.9 magnitude earthquake in North Korea near the vicinity of previous nuclear tests, raising concerns that Pyongyang has tested yet another nuclear weapon.

While the Pentagon has yet to confirm the cause of the tremor, the war of words between the President Donald Trump and the Kim Jong-Un regime has continued to heat up.

This week Donald Trump met with his top military advisers, tweeted that talks with North Korea have failed and "only one thing will work," while Pyongyang accused the president "setting a fuse of war" against the regime and threatening nuclear annihilation.

Amid the flurry of rhetoric, the State Department has come across as out of step, quietly clearing a path to get North Korea back to the negotiating table with tougher economic sanctions and international pressure.

While some of the president's allies have interpreted the two messages coming from the administration as a negotiating tactic, others worry it signals a deepening divide between President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the possibility that the White House is not interested in a diplomatic solution on the Korean Peninsula.

Last week President Trump raised the specter of a military option against Kim Jong-Un's regime during a meeting with top Pentagon officials, telling reporters the gathering was "the calm before the storm." Trump later confirmed the remarks were in reference to North Korea.

Tillerson and his staff have continued to emphasize their "peaceful pressure campaign," which they say is working to deprive North Korea of money, access to banking services and push China to increasingly sever ties with Kim Jong-Un. And while talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons program are not yet on the table, the administration has opened channels for some dialogue.

"It's not big and sexy operations like the U.S. military have," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "It's diplomacy. They are quiet conversations, quiet talks. But we see it having an effect."

The results may not be materializing as quickly as the president expects. Over the weekend, Trump said he wished Tillerson would be "a little bit tougher," writing in a tweet that after three administrations and 25-years of diplomatic failures, "only one thing will work."


Some of Trump's supporters in Congress welcome the change in tone by the president and particularly the fact that he and his State Department have avoided publicly broadcasting their plans to allies and adversaries alike.

"I think silence is golden," said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). "This is very serious, and it's a very urgent situation right now, but I think the silence on our part is okay. I think it's a form of posturing."

U.S. Army veteran and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) applauded the administration's "strategic ambiguity," saying that by being "absolutely firm" and "absolutely surprising," Trump is employing his best possible option.

"I'm well aware as anybody that war is not something that is glamorous," the congressman continued. "The strongest move he can make, shy of anything kinetic, is to not show his cards to them" a posture certain to make aggressors like North Korea "fearful of what could be done."

However, the posture and the statements that are intended to cause America's adversaries to lose sleep have had a similar effect on Democratic lawmakers.

"I think it's very important that responsible leaders encourage the administration to tone the rhetoric down," stated Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).

The president's unpredictability with regard to North Korea "increases the prospect that there could be a conflict as a result of a misstep," Cicilline warned. "You're creating conditions where parties can stumble into a military conflict."

Already, Kim Jong-Un's regime has misinterpreted President Trump's message delivered at the United Nations, alleging the president's words were tantamount to a "declaration of war."

During that speech, Trump referred to the North Korean leader as "Little Rocket Man" and threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea if the U.S. were forced to defend itself.

According to a recent poll, two-thirds of Americans are concerned about this war of words, and believe the heightened rhetoric making the situation worse. Less than 1 in 10 thinks Trump's comments are helping.

Amid a torrent of fiery language from the White House, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) described the silence from Rex Tillerson as "ominous."

"I don't know what the quiet means," she noted. "But we do have to have sanity and I think the diplomatic course that [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis and Secretary Tillerson have spelled out is the appropriate place for us to go."


Since Secretary Tillerson's trip to Beijing at the end of September, there has been evidence of a growing rift between the chief diplomat and the commander in chief.

After meeting with Chinese diplomats, Tillerson confirmed the United States had opened a number of "direct" diplomatic channels with North Korea.

President Trump responded to the news over Twitter saying Tillerson was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man ... Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"

On Wednesday Trump confirmed that he and his chief diplomat were not on the same page, telling reporters he had a "different attitude on North Korea" than others and felt "stronger and tougher on the subject" than others.

"I listen to everybody," he continued, "but ultimately my attitude is the one that matters."

A number of Trump's supporters have said that the president is not contradicting his secretary of state but playing "good cop, bad cop."

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) argued that Trump is "undercutting" Tillerson, saying the pattern of behavior is "very, very disturbing."


Even though President Trump has often invoked a military option for North Korea, virtually no one believes it represents a good option.

As Secretary Mattis and other military leaders have made clear, the human suffering caused by even a conventional military exchange between Pyongyang and Seoul would be catastrophic. The effects of a nuclear exchange would be almost unimaginable.

However, the pattern of diplomacy pursued under the previous three administrations hasn't stopped North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it.

"Sanctions haven't worked," Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) explained. "We're getting close to, I think, a decision that we can't avoid here."

During the nine months Donald Trump has been in office, North Korea has increased the pace of its ballistic missile tests and in September conducted its sixth nuclear test, claiming it detonated a hydrogen bomb.

President Trump has repeatedly pointed to the failures of both Republican and Democratic administrations to effectively curb North Korea's march to become a nuclear weapons state.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said the diplomatic record of the last three administrations on North Korea has been "appalling," but sees some hopeful signs beginning to emerge under the Trump administration.

"We had eight years of looking the other way under Obama," Smith argued. "The critical eight years have occurred and look at what Trump has inherited, a crisis that has a lit fuse."

In spite of the increasingly volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula, Smith believes Trump is responsible for engaging China and helping press them to finally implement international sanctions against their client state.

"Their record has been poor," he said of China, "but now it looks like they're beginning to recognize the gravity of the situation."

Nauert stressed that the efforts with China and the rest of the international community are working. "This is not something that happens overnight, but its something that will take a little bit of time and we’re having success with it."

Trump has signaled some satisfaction with the diplomatic progress being made with China, including Beijing cutting banking to North Korea. On numerous occasions, Trump has attributed the improvements in China's behavior to the personal relationship he has developed with President Xi Jinping.

Next week, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will travel to South Korea and Japan to continue discussions on the diplomatic path forward with North Korea.

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