By: Alison Keefner*


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is an unorthodox Secretary of State. That is what this country signed up for last November when it elected Donald Trump president. Last month, Secretary Tillerson toured Asia mostly under the radar and mostly uncovered by the press. In fact, he only invited a single reporter on the journey with him to visit two of the U.S.’s largest allies in Japan and South Korea, and one of the U.S.’s largest headaches in China[i]. He was even quoted as saying, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it[ii].” Putting aside the fact that the press does not exist because the Secretary wants it to, but rather is there to keep him and the President accountable to the American people, this was surprisingly not the most startling quote from his trip. On the flight from Seoul to Beijing, speaking to the only reporter he invited on the trip, he said that, in reference to the next steps that the U.S. will take in dealing with North Korea, “All options are on the table[iii].” Secretary Tillerson has shown himself to be a man of few words, but the implication behind these words are staggering, dangerous, and fall out of line of decades of U.S.-North Korean diplomatic relations.


U.S.–North Korean Relations: The Basics

The United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, have no formal diplomatic relations. Following the conclusion of the Korean War, the United States established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, but not with the communist DPRK. The DPRK is represented in the United States through their United Nations mission in New York City, and the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang serves as the protecting power for U.S. citizens in the DPRK[iv]. The most pressing issues that cause the hostility often seen between the DPRK and the United States are nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing. The DPRK began the process of nuclear proliferation shortly after the Korean War with the help of the Soviet Union, and it has been actively testing nuclear capable missiles, with the most recent tests occurring in 2006, 2009, 2013, twice in 2016, and as recently as the beginning of April[v]. International control over the DPRK’s nuclear capability is nearly nonexistent, as the DPRK withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons in 2003 and is not a member of any of the larger nuclear non-proliferation treaties[vi]. The Six-Party Talks, consisting of both the DPRK and ROK, Russia, Japan, China, and the United States, has served as a forum to pursue nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, but the talks have not reconvened since 2009[vii].


Tillerson’s Comments Compared to Other Secretaries

The United States and the DPRK are not the best of friends, a fact that is neither hidden nor surprising. In an international environment that strongly supports delicate diplomacy, the animosity between the United States and the DPRK is obvious, and in this respect only, Secretary Tillerson is not unlike his predecessors. President Bush in 2002 called the DPRK a part of an “axis of evil” alongside Iran and Iraq[viii]. Simultaneously, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to revive talks with the DPRK regime following a downturn in relations (if it can even be called that) between the two nations following the September 11th attacks and invasion of Afghanistan[ix]. In 1995 Powell had remarked that if the DPRK were to use missiles against the United States, then the United States should turn the DPRK into “a charcoal briquette[x].” In President Bush’s second term, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice handed officials from the DPRK a four-page document outlining how to prove that its previous nuclear testing reports were accurate in order for the six party talks to proceed[xi]. Under President Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the DPRK to cease its nuclear ambitions or risk losing any aid from the United States[xii].

Harsh comments and threats towards the DPRK from U.S. Secretaries of State are common, but they all have one key end point in mind: diplomatic engagement, which in this case means a return to the six-party talks. This is where Secretary Tillerson’s comments stand in stark contrast to those of his predecessors. Tillerson has displayed no intention of extending a diplomatic hand or returning to the six party talks, declaring that the concept of strategic patience practiced under President Obama has ended[xiii]. During his trip to South Korea in a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Tillerson stated that the “strategic patience” practice that occurred under President Obama was over, and that a more proactive approach towards the reclusive regime would be taken[xiv]. Remember that now “all options are on the table.” Tillerson is hinting that, should the DPRK attack the ROK, the United States would respond with equal military force[xv], going as far as to suggest the ludicrous possibility that the United State would entertain the option of a preemptive strike on the DPRK[xvi].


Why Are His Comments Dangerous?

Secretary Tillerson’s comments have confused and worried allies of the United States in East Asia, as well as foreign policy experts in the United States. Following the DPRK’s most recent missile test on April 4th, Secretary Tillerson only stated that “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.[xvii]” No huge condemnation of the launch. No statement of wanting the DPRK to come back to the negotiating table, no word of support for our allies in the region. Just a statement saying that we have said enough. That is not only unacceptable as a global leader but incredibly worrying in that we have no idea how the Trump administration plans on approaching one of the most reclusive states in the world. And the timing could not be any worse. South Korea is unstable, with their president having been impeached and jailed for corruption just prior to Tillerson’s first visit. Chinese President Xi Xinping, who Trump has called on numerous times to deal with the DPRK, came to the United States last week for his first official visit. During the visit, President Trump spoke to him about cooperation on dealing with the DPRK. While talks seemed to have gone well, the spokesperson the Chinese Foreign Minister has made it clear that the official Chinese position has not changed[xviii]. Not only will we not have a president in South Korea for a few more weeks to help us, but the Chinese do not seem to be overly convinced of taking direct action on the regime, despite their increasing disenchantment with the Kim family. With worried allies in the Pacific, a China that does not seem to want to change its mind, and a South Korean ally still without a real leader, Tilleron’s belligerent, dangerous, and reckless comments have put him, as well as the rest of us, on a collision course with North Korea.



Works Cited

[i] Sanger, David E. “Rex Tillerson’s Hope for a Media-Free Bubble May Burst,” The New York Times, March 19, 2017.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The Editorial Board. “Rex Tillerson Has Shown No Illusion About North Korea,” The New York Times, March 22, 2017.

[iv]  U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Relations with North Korea.”

[v] The Nuclear Threat Initiative. “North Korea.” Last Updated February 2017.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Cummings, Bruce. “Diplomacy by Dereliction: U.S. Policy Toward North Korea is in Disarray,” Foreign Policy in Focus, February 1, 2002.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] CBS News. “Rice Presses North Korean Envoy on Nukes.” CBS News. July 22, 2008.

[xii] McCurry, Justin. “Abandon Nuclear Programme or Lose Aid, Hillary Clinton Warns North Korea,” The Guardian, February 17, 2009.

[xiii] Sanger, David E. “Rex Tillerson Rejects Talks with North Korea on Nuclear Program,” The New York Times, March 17, 2017.

[xiv] Griffiths, James, Paula Hancocks, and Alexandria Field. “Tillerson on North Korea: Military Action is ‘An Option’,” CNN Politics, March 17 2017.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Perlez, Jane. “All Eyes on China as U.S. Signals New Tack on North Korea,” The New York Times, March 17, 2017.

[xvii] Sanger, David E. and Mark Landler. “Rex Tillerson’s Reticence on North Korea Leaves Allies Confused,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017.

[xviii] Jiang, Steven, Katie Hunt, and Ben Westcott. “China Calls for Calm as US Dispatched Naval Might to Korean Waters,” CNN Politics, April 12, 2017.


*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the views of the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever