The reviews of Rex Tillerson are in, and most of them aren’t good. We could have predicted this ten months ago; after all, most of the commentariat harbors center-left or pro-“engagement” views and it wasn’t going to agree with Trump’s policies anyway. Still, it’s hard for me to accept at face value the criticisms of those who have defended, to varying degrees, the self-evidently disastrous North Korea policies of Barack Obama and second-term G.W. Bush — policies that have more similarities than differences. It’s an additional challenge to separate one’s views of this President and his Twitter habits from an assessment of his North Korea policies, or how competently his administration has executed them. Still, one can agree with Trump’s decision to break from the failed policies of his predecessors, which brought us to this crisis, and still acknowledge that some of the criticism has merit. Overall, this administration is getting more things right than its predecessors did, but let’s start with the areas that need improvement.
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First, an effective Secretary of State speaks articulately for his country. Tillerson isn’t a vocal or charismatic advocate of our interests or of the values that serve those interests. I can understand why Tillerson might be more concerned than his predecessors about upstaging his boss, or about saying something his boss might contradict later on Twitter. Maybe the recent diminution of the nationalist wing in the White House will liberate Tillerson, but his reticent personality may also be part of the problem.
The State Department’s hiring freeze, which continues months after it was lifted for the rest of the government, retards the pace at which State can review and approve sanctions designation packages and dispatch envoys to persuade other nations to cut their ties to Pyongyang. I don’t yield to anyone as a critic of the State Department’s performance on North Korea policy or in agreeing that State needs some profound cultural and personnel changes. Agreed Frameworks I and II and the Leap Day Agreement have justly cost it credibility it may never regain. Even so, the President needs a strong diplomatic corps to build a global coalition against Pyongyang and, when the time is right, to know how to leverage that pressure to achieve our core interests in negotiations with our frenemies and our foes. We need good diplomats for both tasks.
Tillerson has also sent mixed signals on its willingness to negotiate with Pyongyang. His recent statement complimenting North Korea for not launching a missile against Guam resulted in a predictable embarrassment — he might as well have dared Kim Jong-un to test a nuke.
Tillerson’s greatest error on North Korea policy, however, has been to overlook the importance of human rights as a key element of U.S. policy, and as an argument for a global coalition against Pyongyang (for more on that point, see this by the Heritage Foundation, no less). Tillerson himself referred to the “moral dimension” of isolating Pyongyang, saying, “These first steps toward a more hopeful future will happen most quickly if other stakeholders in the region and the global security (sic) join us.”
Yet by merging the duties of the Special Envoy for human rights into another full-time position, and by explicitly disavowing any efforts to destabilize the regime, Tillerson is throwing away the very leverage he imagines he’s clinging to when he says, “All options are on the table.” Pyongyang dismisses this as a bluff, but friends whose support we’ll need don’t. It’s our talk about human rights that really terrifies Pyongyang. What Kim Jong-un and his generals see in their nightmares is a day when they’ve lost control of the minds of the North Korean people, and can’t afford to pay, equip, or maintain the security forces to suppress 70 years of grievances from those they’ve cheated, abused, and bereaved.
By ceding human rights, Tillerson is missing an opportunity to build a global coalition around the principles articulated in the U.N. Charter. And no one has a greater need of a persuasive public advocate than a Secretary of State who isn’t one himself. Also, Pyongyang thinks we’re trying to overthrow it anyway. If anyone asks us if we’re encouraging the North Korean people to overthrow His Porcine Majesty, we shouldn’t say we are or that we aren’t. We should just be vague.* Let our frenemies and foes use their imaginations and be afraid of what we’ll do if diplomacy fails.
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Still, let’s give Tillerson credit where it’s due. He can boast of some successes here that build on the significant gains that Yun Byung-se achieved before Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. He probably deserves some credit for getting two useful resolutions (2371 and 2375) through the U.N. Security Council, although Ambassador Haley and the USUN staff probably deserve most of it. Liberals tend to overestimate the moral authority of U.N. resolutions, while conservatives tend to underestimate their utility in getting wavering, reputation-conscious states to put economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang. In fact, U.N. and U.S. national sanctions are mutually complementary. Neither works very well without the other.
There has also been significant progress toward isolating Pyongyang internationally, consistent with what Tillerson called for in this April 28th speech to the U.N.: first, to implement existing U.N. Security Council resolutions; to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea; and third, to isolate North Korea financially — a request Tillerson delivered with an explicit threat of secondary sanctions.
Recently, State’s efforts to disconnect North Korea’s diplomatic and trade links to the global economy have gained momentum. Start with this post from February and this one from June on Tillerson’s slow start. This post from August documents the first public signs of the administration’s efforts, through the spring and summer, to get southeast Asian nations to cut their ties with Pyongyang. Although State Department people say that much of this work is being done quietly and without publicity, in recent weeks, there have been more public reports that those efforts are starting to pay off — in some cases, because we’re backing them with threats.
- 8/31: Spain says it will reduce the number of North Korean diplomats in its country.
- 9/7: Mexico expels North Korea’s ambassador over its latest nuclear test.
- 9/8: The Philippines’ Foreign Secretary says his country, which had recently become one of Pyongyang’s largest trading partners and a haven for drug dealing and money laundering — including the proceeds of the Bangladesh Bank/SWIFT hack — will end all trade with North Korea.
- 9/9: Trump and Abe ask the President of France to increase pressure on North Korea.
- 9/10: Japan’s Foreign Minister asks Qatar to stop using North Korean slave labor, before visiting Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
- 9/11: Peru announces that it will expel the North Korean ambassador.
- 9/11: Japan’s Foreign Minister, having failed to extract commitments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop buying slave labor from North Korea, takes his appeal to the Arab League.
- 9/12: President Trump meets with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, a haven for North Korean money laundering, and says (for what it’s worth) that Malaysia had agreed to stop doing business with Pyongyang.
- 9/12: Egypt, a major and long-standing North Korean arms client, says it will cut its military ties to Pyongyang after the U.S. withholds an aid payment (more here).
- 9/18: Vietnam expels another representative of the U.N.-designated Tanchon Commercial Bank.
- 9/18: Kuwait says it will expel North Korea’s ambassador and reduce the size of its embassy staff from nine to four.
- 9/28: Poland halts temporary residence and work permits for North Koreans, Sri Lanka restricts visas for North Koreans, Malaysia bans most travel to North Korea.
- 10/1: Italy expels North Korea’s ambassador.
Reducing North Korea’s diplomatic presence abroad is essential to any campaign of diplomatic pressure, because North Korea’s diplomats do double-duty as arms dealers and money launderers. Of course, some important caveats apply. First, take any government’s promise to cut ties with North Korea with several grains of salt. For example, last November, Sudan said it would cut its military ties to North Korea, but as of July, the U.S. was still urging Khartoum to keep its promise and threatening to cut aid. Namibia promised to cut its military ties to North Korea, but we later learned that this wasn’t true, either. Second, Rex Tillerson cannot take full credit for this strategy, merely for his part in executing it. In the final months of the Obama administration, State Department official Danny Russel said that the U.S. has asked governments around to “downgrade or sever” their diplomatic relations with North Korea.
I’ve long argued that diplomacy would play a critical role in addressing the collection of crimes and crises collectively known as “North Korea.” The theory I’ve advanced is what I call “progressive diplomacy,” which means that we should build coalitions with friendly and persuadable nations before we attempt to negotiate with hostile ones. Our objective should be to isolate Pyongyang and its allies until we have sufficient leverage for negotiations to have a chance of achieving our interests. Rather than approach Pyongyang now, while its leverage exceeds our own, we should approach friendly states (South Korea, Japan, Canada, the UK, the EU, Singapore, Panama) first and ask them to cut their economic and diplomatic ties to Pyongyang. Our next targets should be wavering states (Malaysia, Zambia, Namibia), then Pyongyang’s more willful enablers (China, Russia) and finally, Pyongyang itself. That sequence maximizes our leverage at each stage of this diplomatic process by approaching hostile states only after they are relatively isolated.
For the last 20 years, we’ve had that sequence entirely wrong. Give Rex Tillerson credit for getting it right, and for what he has done in the last several months to translate that strategy into policy. If the unplugging of Pyongyang’s diplomatic and financial links to the world is starting to cause it pain, and there are growing signs that it may be, I would expect Pyongyang’s provocations to escalate. Contra the pro-engagement critics who characterize each new nuclear and missile test as proof that sanctions aren’t working, it’s at least as likely that those escalating provocations are signs that they are.
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* I don’t advocate a declared policy of “regime change.” First, what those words mean to most people (as in, invasion) would be disastrous for Korea. Second, it’s no use proclaiming a policy that can’t be explained or defended publicly, and a subversion project would necessarily include overt, covert, and clandestine elements. Our public position should be that nations are obliged to consider what their trade is supporting, that our financial system is closed to those who aid and abet crimes against humanity, that we will prioritize giving the North Korean people freedom of information, and that it is for the North Korean people to decide how they will use that information.
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- 7/19: Spain says it will expel the North Korean ambassador.
- 7/19: Kuwait and Qatar both say they will stop issuing visas to North Korean workers. Qatar reportedly hosts 1,000 workers whose contracts will expire in 2018. Kuwait hosts 3,000 more.
- 7/19: Taiwan says it will halt oil and LNG exports to North Korea, and will also halt textile imports (as required by UNSCR 2375).
- 7/22: Taiwan adds that it will end all trade with North Korea. Taiwanese suppliers have previously exported dual-use machine tools to North Korea.