Unlike President Donald Trump’s lopsided focus on “fire and fury” toward North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have laid out the US’s comprehensive approach to dealing with North Korea.
An op-ed by Tillerson and Mattis in The Wall Street Journal stresses the US’s efforts to get the international community, especially China and the UN Security Council, on board with denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Equally as important to the US’s stated goal, however, are objectives the pair say they won’t pursue.
“The US has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,” they wrote. “We do not seek an excuse to garrison US troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang.”
These promises to respect Pyongyang’s leadership and the state’s function as a buffer state between US-influenced South Korea and Chinese-backed North Korea represent the substance of what China and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would most likely demand from the US in any negotiation.
In the face of mounting tensions between North Korea and the US, Pyongyang has been slipping de-escalatory language into statements about its nuclear posture.
Here’s the most recent, highest-level North Korean statement, from Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, on the prospect of disarming (emphasis added):
“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table. Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated.”
But Tillerson and Mattis suggest that things should work differently — and that North Korea should pause its illegal hostilities before the US pauses its legal military exercises with South Korea.
Citing “the long record of North Korea’s dishonesty in negotiations and repeated violations of international agreements,” Tillerson and Mattis call for an “immediate cessation of its provocative threats, nuclear tests, missile launches, and other weapons tests.”
To achieve this goal, Tillerson and Mattis call on China to reassess its interests and cut off trade with North Korea. “The region and world need and expect China to do more,” the authors write.
Still, Tillerson and Mattis end by asserting the US military’s preparedness to handle North Korea with force should diplomacy fail.