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Rex Tillerson on North Korea

I’ve been letting confirmation hearings play in the background at the office this week, and I was able to catch enough of Rex Tillerson’s hearing to listen up at key moments. You can watch the whole thing here if you have time; it’s likely that North Korea also came up during other moments that I didn’t catch. Of course, I was keen to hear Tillerson’s views about North Korea. I was also keen to hear (indirectly) the views of the transition team members who had prepared him for his hearing. In his written testimony, Tillerson strongly criticized China for being unhelpful on North Korea.

And we must hold those who are not our friends accountable to the agreements they make. Our failure to do this over recent decades has diminished our standing and encouraged bad actors around the world to break their word. We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran. We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement. Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end. [….]

We should also acknowledge the realities about China. China’s island building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms. China’s economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements. It steals our intellectual property, and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm. It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea. China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests. We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope.

But we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well. The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership. [Written Testimony]

Tillerson made similar verbal statements early on in the hearing.

More press reports on those comments here and here.

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado got his turn to ask questions at 2:31:50 (sorry, no embed link). Gardner used his time efficiently, methodically pinning Tillerson down on a series of policy points: full enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, exerting more pressure on China and North Korea, the use of secondary sanctions against China, and working closely with Japan and South Korea. Gardner returned at 6:21 to raise the issue of human rights and yesterday’s designation of Kim Yo-jong, announced just minutes before, though Tillerson himself didn’t expand on that. (I’ll discuss those designations in a future post, hopefully tonight.)

Tillerson’s hearing added more pixels to our image of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, and the policy that is taking form is a conventionally conservative one. Compare Tillerson’s comments with those of Michael Flynn during a recent visit to Seoul, where Flynn also re-committed to the alliance and to stepping up the enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang. Tillerson is clearly smart and well-schooled in foreign affairs. When appropriate, he was willing to disagree with some of the bombastic statements of the President-Elect as a candidate. He seemed steady, independent, and well-qualified. We could do much worse. Time will tell whether he’ll be confirmed and how he performs.