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As Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson diverge on rhetoric, the United States strategy on North Korea becomes clearer. By Karen Middleton.

Trump and Tillerson diverge on North Korea

When Gareth Evans was Australia’s foreign minister and Bob Hawke its prime minister, they were, Evans says, “as close as lips and teeth”.

“We talked to each other all the time about foreign policy issues,” the former minister said this week, after Hawke had launched Evans’ memoir, Incorrigible Optimist.

“There wasn’t a paper tissue between us and it would have been very bad for our credibility – ours or any other government – had that have been so.”

He was comparing that relationship to the one between United States President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after the commander-in-chief’s startling public intervention on North Korea at the weekend appeared to undercut Tillerson’s attempts to broker communications with the hermit kingdom.

Those attempts involve several countries directly and, more peripherally, Australia, which is providing back-channel support via its regional relationships, especially with China and South Korea.

A former oil industry executive turned diplomat, Tillerson was remarkably frank about the status of talks during a briefing with journalists in Beijing last weekend.

“We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” he said. “We have a couple – three – channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them.”

With the simmering tensions on the Korean peninsula as close to boiling over as they have been in decades, the chief protagonists’ every word faces intense scrutiny. Students of diplomacy were stunned to see Trump take to Twitter, telling Tillerson on North Korea: “Save your energy Rex.”

Trump declared his secretary was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”, repeating the derogatory nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he first used in his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, apparently – word is, in Washington – against the advice of his most senior cabinet ministers, including Tillerson.

The missive was dispatched to Trump’s almost 40-million-strong Twitter audience soon after reports emerged from the Beijing briefing.

Tillerson had told journalists the US aimed to eradicate nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.

“This is going to be a process of engagement with North Korea that will be stepwise,” he said. “I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down. They’re a little overheated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first. And then the first conversation is around: What are we going to talk about? Because we’ve not even had that conversation. And so the first time I would have the opportunity to sit with the North Koreans, it would be to say: ‘What do you want to talk about?’ We haven’t even gotten that far yet.”

Associated Press journalist Christopher Bodeen asked: “When you talk about the rhetoric being a little overheated, does that apply also to President Trump? And should President Trump maybe tone down some of his comments as well?”

The secretary did not reject the suggestion. “I think the whole situation’s a bit overheated right now,” he said. “I think everyone would like for it to calm down.”

And then he added: “Obviously, it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot.”

The timing of Trump’s ensuing tweet prompted speculation about a bruised ego. The Australian government is choosing a more generous interpretation.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop defended both Trump and Tillerson this week, crediting Trump with success in having forced China to take out unprecedented sanctions against North Korea.

“We have now seen China play a very active role in implementing the economic sanctions,” Bishop said.

She suggested Trump’s tweet related to North Korea’s failure to make good on promises in past negotiations.

“However, that shouldn’t mean we should stop trying and I believe that Secretary Tillerson is seeking to find a resolution,” she said, adding that he and others were engaged “in a collective strategy, as am I on Australia’s behalf, to put maximum political and diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to bring it back to the negotiating table”.

There is a view within the Australian government that the tweet was Trump being strategic, establishing a “good cop, bad cop” set-up with his secretary of state.

Based on what appears to be more observation than information, some believe he is deliberately exacerbating his unpredictable personal reputation to encourage countries such as China – and eventually North Korea – to opt for moving quickly to deal with the more reasonable Tillerson over delaying and having to engage directly with an erratic Trump.

But others outside government, including Gareth Evans, see that as a heroic interpretation.

“What we saw between Trump and Tillerson was pretty hair-raising, pretty unprecedented in almost any context that I can think of,” Evans said.

“… How Tillerson finds the capacity to stay around, being treated with as much contempt as he manifestly is by Trump, is an interesting question.”

Other Australians well credentialed in diplomacy, defence and government agree with Evans.

Professor John Blaxland, the director of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, believes Australia is still being too uncritical of the US.

“We are now supporting the US in a tit-for-tat diplomatic tirade which has the potential to escalate into a kinetic tirade,” Blaxland says.

He notes that along with applying sanctions to North Korea, China is also punishing South Korea for allowing the US to base its anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, known as THAAD, on South Korean soil.

The executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, told The Saturday Paper he welcomed Tillerson’s initial comments.

“And then to have Trump knock them down almost contemptuously, as he did – I mean, it’s bizarre,” Jennings says. “I don’t see this as some sort of clever ‘good cop, bad cop’ arrangement. I think what we have here is an absence of strategy.”

He says China has done more than expected but that crediting Trump with a detailed strategy was too much. “I’m puzzled why our government seems to be grasping at these straws.”

Another observer described Trump’s tweets as “bizarre” and “something you would expect from some tin-pot dictator somewhere”.

“There’s no way in the world Trump’s tweet about Tillerson is part of a strategy,” the observer told The Saturday Paper.

“That’s going off half-cocked. Where does it leave Tillerson with the Chinese? If that happened in the Australian context, the foreign minister would have to resign.”

By Wednesday in Washington, the NBC network was reporting that Tillerson had previously threatened just that. It said that earlier this year, Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” and that vice-president Mike Pence had to counsel him not to go.

Then came another extraordinary development: Tillerson held a Washington news conference expressly to deny he had ever considered resigning and to declare his support for Trump. He rejected the suggestion Pence had had to persuade him to stay.

Some in Australian diplomatic circles wonder if Tillerson’s heart is really in the job.

In the press conference, Tillerson offered his own assessment of Trump. “Let me tell you what I’ve learnt about this president, whom I did not know before taking this office. He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart. He demands results wherever he goes, and he holds those around him accountable for whether they’ve done the job he’s asked them to do.”

Later, a state department spokeswoman said the press conference had been at Tillerson’s own instigation and he and Trump had had “a good conversation” afterwards.

She denied he had ever called the president a “moron”.

“The secretary does not use that type of language,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “The secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the president of the United States. He does not use that language to speak about anyone.”

Earlier, Tillerson had failed to deny the allegation, saying only that he would not respond to “petty stuff like that” and lamenting: “This is what I don’t understand about Washington.”

What many observers don’t understand is the apparent contradictions emerging from deep within the US administration, especially about its intentions towards North Korea.

After Tillerson’s Beijing briefing, his department tweeted that communication with Pyongyang would not remain open forever.

Then, from the White House podium, presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had another message. She said the only conversations that had taken place – or would – related to the three Americans still being detained there.

“Beyond that, there will be no conversations with North Korea at this time,” she said. “… There’s a difference between talking and putting [on] diplomatic pressure. We still strongly support putting diplomatic pressure on North Korea, which we’re continuing to do. But now is not the time simply to have conversations with North Korea.”

Back in Beijing, Tillerson had said: “We’re hopeful that … the peaceful pressure campaign is going to cause the leadership in North Korea to want to engage, and engage in the right conversation. And we’ve made it clear that we hope to resolve this through talks as well. That’s our principal objective, is a peaceful resolution.”

After Tillerson’s subsequent pledge-of-allegiance press conference, Trump declared he still had his full confidence.

But the chairman of the US senate’s foreign relations committee, Republican senator Bob Corker, delivered a public backhander, defending Tillerson and those others seen as the cabinet’s coolest heads, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly.

“I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and chief of staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos,” Corker said. “And I support them very much.”

Two of their Australian counterparts, Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne, will grapple with the Korean tensions directly next week, travelling to Seoul for yearly government-to-government talks.

Ahead of that, a group of 26 eminent Australians experienced in diplomacy, government, law, academia and human rights have penned an open letter urging the government to actively discourage what would be a “dire” military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

The group, headed by former defence department secretary Paul Barratt, includes former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, former prime minister’s department secretary John Menadue, former diplomat Alison Broinowski and former justice Elizabeth Evatt, a member of the International Commission of Jurists.

It says existing negotiating structures involving the parties most directly affected provided the best framework to reduce tension. “Australia should use its best diplomatic efforts to further this process.”

The group raises concerns about relying on sanctions alone and encouraging inflammatory rhetoric. “We should desist from adding fuel to the fire with provocative or one-sided statements.”

Others have criticised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to link the North Korea crisis to this week’s announcement that a new Aegis missile-defence system would be included on Australia’s yet-to-be-built frigates, its capacity to shoot down any intercontinental ballistic missiles that might potentially threaten Australia is still in development.

It is the same system installed on US and Japanese vessels and only could be used effectively in any conflict on the peninsula if positioned close by.

The ANU’s John Blaxland says North Korea’s actions are being used to justify “expenditure on capabilities we had not considered acquiring before”, because the threat has now become “realistic”.

Peter Jennings says he fears military conflict is inevitable unless “active steps are taken” to get the US and North Korea to the negotiating table.

Others advocating negotiation say the endgame must be a formal peace treaty on the peninsula, which remains officially in a state of war, since the Korean War hostilities ceased with an armistice and not a treaty.

They say it would have to involve North Korea giving up its nuclear ambitions and the US removing its military presence, with the two Koreas remaining permanently separated.

For now, whatever is going on in the background, it’s the US’s public positioning raising eyebrows.

When the state department’s Heather Nauert was challenged on Tuesday about a confusing departmental tweet on North Korea’s nuclear capability, she lamented the lack of depth 140 characters allowed.

“Does that mean that you think that 140-character tweets are perhaps not the best way to convey foreign policy messages?” a journalist asked.

Nauert was onto the implications. “I’m not going to touch that one,” she replied.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Looking for the good cop on North Korea". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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