Less than two months into his tenure as U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson arrives in Asia Wednesday looking for fresh approaches to a challenge that has bedeviled the U.S. for 25 years: North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.
The urgency of Tillerson’s task in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing this week is only rising after recent tests show the reach of North Korea’s ballistic missiles edging closer and closer to the continental U.S. Tillerson will see if his outsider’s perspective and deal-making chops after four decades at Exxon Mobil Corp. can work some magic where seasoned diplomats have failed.
“Part of the reason that a radical change has not been adopted is that in Washington there is a sense that the crisis is not yet here — it will happen if the North Koreans are able to reach the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile,” said Stanford University physicist Siegfried Hecker, who estimates North Korea has enough material for up to 25 nuclear weapons. “However, the crisis is here now.”
For America’s top diplomat, the Asia trip will be daunting, and not just because of North Korea. He must show Japan that the U.S. is still interested in Asia after turning its back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Japan invested so heavily in; lend support to a South Korean government steeped in political turmoil with the impeachment and removal from office of President Park Geun-hye; and ease Chinese concerns that President Donald Trump is intent on waging a trade war, or confronting Beijing in the South China Sea.
While Tillerson has made two trips so far — brief visits to Bonn and Mexico City — this visit will be a test for him. He drew criticism for breaking with tradition and refusing to take journalists with him on his plane, but he’s expected to take media questions for the first time since starting the job — once in Tokyo and again in Seoul.
The focus of those questions is likely to be on North Korea. With the White House in the middle of a policy review, Tillerson will gauge the appetite for imposing stricter sanctions on the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un, and possibly penalties on a wider range of businesses that work with North Korean entities, according to a State Department official who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of the trip.
“The U.S. will be looking for assurances that China shall conduct international trade on a fair basis, that China shall fully observe various UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea and that China will abide by international law regarding international maritime law,” said Shen Dingli, an associate dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies.
Japan, Tillerson’s first stop, is likely to be on board. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump established their rapport last month over golf at Trump National Golf Club in Florida and in a joint protest at North Korea’s launch of a medium-range missile while they were meeting.
But the political turmoil in South Korea that forced out President Park may usher in a government that seeks reconciliation rather than confrontation with North Korea and opposes the installation of the U.S.’s Thaad missile defense system, which is under way and has brought protests from both Pyongyang and Beijing.
Tillerson’s visit to South Korea and Japan will be “an important turning point” for the coordinated response of the three nations to the threat from North Korea, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said in a briefing.
The most challenging task will probably come in China, Tillerson’s final stop, where businesses continue to help North Korea evade UN sanctions even after it halted coal imports from the country earlier this year, according to experts.
One approach could be for Tillerson to point to the $1.2 billion fine that Chinese technology firm ZTE Corp. agreed to pay for violating U.S. laws restricting the sale of American technology to Iran — and warn the U.S. might do the same to Chinese banks that conduct business with North Korea.
“The Chinese are doing what the Treasury Department has called a threat to the integrity of the U.S. financial system,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If that was being done by any other country, we would have acted already.”
Tillerson’s task in Beijing will also presumably include smoothing the way for a potential meeting in Florida between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping as soon as April.
But North Korean issues will dominate, even if for now it appears that there is little appetite for direct U.S. talks with Pyongyang. Speaking at a briefing last week, acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated the long-standing U.S. position that North Korea would need to give some sign it was serious about giving up nuclear weapons before talks of any kind could resume.
That has sparked criticism from some analysts who say the time for that sort of thinking is antiquated now that North Korea is getting closer to being able to hit the U.S. with missiles. The consensus in the Trump administration is that some new actions must be taken because the strategy of “strategic patience” under President Barack Obama has proven a failure.
“The truth is that North Korea is the land of bad policy options and we have a tendency to fall back on similar ideas,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “The U.S. and North Korea engaged in decades of dialogue, and ultimately, North Korea failed to honors its commitments. We can’t let North Korea stall for time again.”