Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to the Philippines this weekend to attend the annual Association of Southeastern Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Regional Forum, where he will have the opportunity to speak with North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho.
On Tuesday, Tillerson told reporters that the US is neither friend nor enemy to North Korea. The United States does not want to overthrow Kim Jong-un’s government or attack his country. We just want him to stop his nuclear threats.
Tillerson’s words represent the Trump Administration’s first serious attempt at a diplomatic opening to Pyongyang, and he has offered to open negotiations with the peninsula by assuring North Korea the security it seeks and a new chance at economic growth if it surrenders its nuclear weapons.
ASEAN “will be a very important opportunity…for the US and North Korea to send messages – unvarnished, with no middle men – to one another about their policies,” says Mike Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “The interesting dynamic is the signals sent from one to the other when they’re in the room together.”
The ASEAN forum brings together representatives from 27 countries. It will be Tillerson’s job to find a way to reassure our allies while trying to send a clear message to North Korea what the US will and will not accept in regards to Pyongyang’s weapons program.
“If we can get past the impasse of the North Koreans saying, ‘We will only come to the table if you recognize us as a nuclear state,’ and the US saying, ‘We can only enter into talks if you commit to denuclearization,’ there’s a diplomatic space,” says Robert S. Litwak, director of security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
As of last week, North Korea has successfully test-fired at least two missiles that analysts believe are capable of reaching the United States. With this in mind, Pyongyang’s diplomats could believe they have the upper hand in negotiations.
Christopher R. Hill, a former American ambassador to Seoul, says the North Koreans believe the US will eventually be cornered into accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. “We are left in a situation where they believe we will ultimately acquiesce.”
In what the White House insists was not a response to Pyongyang’s recent test, the US military tested a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile they say demonstrates we are ready “to deter, detect, and defend against attacks on the United States and its allies.”
China supports the idea of face-to-face talks between North Korea and the US, but is working with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea that could delay such a meeting.
An agreement centered around the current proposals for the Code of Conduct would be a victory for China and would be beneficial for its reputation “in the sense that it helps back up the idea of its rise as a peaceful power,” reports CNN Politics.
Polls show that ASEAN nations are more hesitant than ever to stand up to China, possibly because they don’t believe the Trump Administration will help in the event of a dispute in the South China Sea.
Editor’s note: America and North Korea have been trading provocations, which was necessary as a preliminary step in negotiation. This will not be a quick process but Trump has engaged North Korea and working to solve the problem. Obama ignored North Korea. He should never have allowed them to get to this point.