The Trump Administration has officially ruled out a Cold War-style containment and deterrence strategy, said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday as he spoke to an audience at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
Tillerson fears that, if given the chance, impoverished North Korea would turn its arsenal into a business and sell nukes on the black market.
“Many people have asked the question, ‘Well, why can’t you live with a containment strategy? You lived with it with Russia. You lived with it with China. The difference is that with the past behavior of North Korea, it is clear to us that they would not just use the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This would become a commercial activity for them. And in a world we live in today where our greatest threats are non-state actors, we simply cannot accept that.”
North Korea has already hinted its willingness to share nuclear technology with Iran, and reports suggest the regime has already tried selling nuclear material to other actors. On top of that is North Korea's repeated failure to abide by international law.
“That’s the reason the president and I agree with his assessment that we simply cannot accept a nuclear-armed North Korea,” said Tillerson, vowing to prioritize diplomacy “until the first bomb drops.”
Tillerson also said the US is ready to begin talks “without preconditions.” This is a significant shift compared to previous demands that North Korea forfeit its nukes before negotiations could begin.
“We have said from the diplomatic side we are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. Let’s just meet,” said Tillerson, adding that there should be a “period of quiet” before talks begin. “It’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device.”
This "period of quiet" must include restraint from the US as well as North Korea, argues Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. “[That means] refraining from military maneuvers and overflights that appear to be practice runs for an attack on the North.”
Tillerson's offer to North Korea follows Kim Jong-un’s promise to make his country the “world’s strongest nuclear power” and comes two weeks after the peninsula tested an ICBM. Tillerson reiterated that full disarmament is the ultimate goal of negotiations.
Meanwhile, President Trump is urging China to place a full oil embargo on North Korea to stop the peninsula’s nuclear tests and bring Kim to the negotiating table.
As Tillerson pointed out, the last time China cut off oil to North Korea, it took just three days before they were ready to negotiate.
Earlier this week, we learned that China is in the midst of building a network of refugee camps along its border with North Korea in preparation for a possible regime collapse or conflict.