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Experts: Tillerson’s Remarks Further Muddy Trump’s North Korea Policy

  • Jenny Lee

A man watches a TV news program showing a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

The Trump administration has reportedly concluded its North Korea policy review, but there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty about how President Donald Trump will constrain the regime’s nuclear weapons development.

Pyongyang yet again defied international warnings and launched a medium range ballistic missile into its eastern waters early Wednesday, in what appeared to be an effort to develop a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. The missile fired at a land-based facility near the North’s eastern coastal city of Sinpo, flew a distance of about 60 kilometers, but “did not pose a threat to North America,” the U.S. Pacific Command said.

Shortly after the missile launch, Seoul and Tokyo responded with condemnation, calling the test a blunt challenge to U.N. Security Council resolutions and a “path to self-destruction.” Washington, however, issued a terse statement, prompting North Korea analysts to speculate about what could have been behind Washington’s unusual restraint.

"North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

Dennis Wilder, a former senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, views Tillerson’s statement as a dire warning to North Korea, and said Wednesday that it also appears to be part of an “open strategy” by Trump’s White House to put pressure on China.

“Yes, [it is] a warning that the United States is losing patience with the North Koreans and their antics,” said Wilder, who is now a Georgetown University professor, “and we are tired of giving [Kim Jong Un] attention and that as the president said, it’s time for the Chinese to make a strategic decision on North Korea.”

Lights are turned on on the Friendship and the Broken bridges over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017.
Lights are turned on on the Friendship and the Broken bridges over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017.

With Trump’s policy toward North Korea yet to be defined publicly, uncertainty runs high, making it difficult to pinpoint the intent of Tillerson’s statement, Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, said Wednesday.

“Like so many of the statements by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson, it leaves itself open for different interpretations and misinterpretations,” said Klingner, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “But one would have hoped they would have at least pointed out that it’s a violation and reflects North Korea’s continuing defiance of the international community.”

Some experts question whether the statement was an appropriate response from the nation’s top diplomat, who until being sworn in Feb. 1, was ExxonMobil CEO.

Laura Rosenberger, a senior official in former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said: “What’s particularly troubling about Secretary Tillerson’s statement is that we’ve seen no sense from the Trump administration of what their policy and approach toward North Korea is, and this is particularly troubling for both the importance of reassuring our allies in the region as well as to ensure that North Korea understands the degree to which this raises serious concerns in the United States.”

Over the weekend, Trump vowed that he would go it alone to constrain the North’s nuclear drive, if Beijing fails to weigh in.

"If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will," Trump told The Financial Times Sunday. “China will either decide to help us with North Korea or they won't. If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don't, it won't be good for anyone."

But Trump did not elaborate on how he would disarm North Korea without China’s cooperation. A two-day summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to begin Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida estate. North Korea is likely to top the agenda.

Anthony Ruggiero, a North Korea expert in the use of targeted financial measures who spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government, said Trump’s North Korea policy could take a harder line than that of previous administrations by bringing broader “secondary sanctions on Chinese companies, banks and individuals that are complicit in North Korea’s sanctions evasion” using U.S. law.

Ruggiero, who is currently a senior fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the administration also could assist other countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions and increase military exercises, and deploy additional assets – whether they be more troops or more items -- in South Korea and Japan.

This report originated with the VOA Korean service.

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