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Rex Tillerson Rejects Talks With North Korea on Nuclear Program

Negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” he said — a step to which the North committed in 1992, and again in subsequent accords, but has always violated. “Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”

His warning on Friday about new ways to pressure the North was far more specific and martial sounding than during the first stop of his three-country tour, in Tokyo on Thursday. His inconsistency of tone may have been intended to signal a tougher line to the Chinese before he lands in Beijing on Saturday. It could also reflect an effort by Mr. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to issue the right diplomatic signals in a region where American commitment is in doubt.

Mr. Tillerson’s tougher line was echoed by President Trump on Twitter later Friday. “North Korea is behaving very badly,” he posted. “They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!”

Almost exactly a year ago, when Mr. Trump was still a candidate, he threatened in an interview with The New York Times to pull troops back from the Pacific region unless South Korea and Japan paid a greater share of the cost of keeping them there. During Mr. Tillerson’s stops in South Korea and Japan, there was no public talk of that demand.

On Friday afternoon, after visiting the Demilitarized Zone and peering into North Korean territory in what has become a ritual for American officials making a first visit to the South, Mr. Tillerson explicitly rejected a Chinese proposal to get the North Koreans to freeze their testing in return for the United States and South Korea suspending all annual joint military exercises, which are now underway.

Mr. Tillerson argued that a freeze would essentially enshrine “a comprehensive set of capabilities” North Korea possesses that already pose too great a threat to the United States and its allies, and he said there would be no negotiation until the North agreed to dismantle its programs.

Mr. Tillerson ignored a question about whether the Trump administration would double down on the use of cyberweapons against the North’s missile development, a covert program that Mr. Obama accelerated early in 2014 and that so far has yielded mixed results.

Instead, Mr. Tillerson referred vaguely to a “number of steps” the United States could take — a phrase that seemed to embrace much more vigorous enforcement of sanctions, ramping up missile defenses, cutting off North Korea’s oil, intensifying the cyberwar program and striking the North’s known missile sites. At a meeting of the “principals committee” of the National Security Council on Monday, any discussion of military action was kicked down the road.

The rejection of negotiations on a freeze would be consistent with the approach taken by President Barack Obama, who declined Chinese offers to restart the so-called six-party talks that stalled several years ago — which included North Korea, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States — unless the North agreed at the outset that the goal of the negotiations was the “complete, verifiable, irreversible” dismantling of its program. South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, repeated that formulation today; Mr. Tillerson did not.

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A rally in Seoul on Friday opposing Mr. Tillerson’s visit to South Korea. Credit Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press

But classified assessments of the North that the Obama administration left for its successors included a grim assessment by the intelligence community: that North Korea’s leader, Mr. Kim, believes his nuclear weapons program is the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime and will never trade it away for economic or other benefits.

The assessment said that the example of what happened to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime leader of Libya, had played a critical role in North Korean thinking. Colonel Qaddafi gave up the components of Libya’s nuclear program in late 2003 — most of them were still in crates from Pakistan — in hopes of economic integration with the West. Eight years later, when the Arab Spring broke out, the United States and its European allies joined forces to depose Colonel Qaddafi, who was eventually found hiding in a ditch and executed by Libyan rebels.

On Friday, after his visit to the Demilitarized Zone, Mr. Tillerson returned to Seoul for meetings about a problem that has quickly reached crisis proportions because of a series of recent, and successful, nuclear and missile tests.

Among many experts, the idea of a freeze has been favored as the least terrible of a series of bad options. Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear expert who worked on Mr. Obama’s National Security Council, and Toby Dalton wrote recently in Politico, “A temporary freeze on missile and nuclear developments sounds better than an unconstrained and growing threat. It is also, possibly, the most logical and necessary first step toward an overall agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. But the risk that North Korea will cheat or hide facilities during a negotiated freeze is great.”

William J. Perry, who was secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, argued in Beijing on Friday that it was no longer realistic to expect North Korea to commit to dismantling or surrendering its nuclear arsenal. The Trump administration, he said, should instead focus on persuading the North to commit to a long-term freeze in which it suspends testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and pledges not to sell or transfer any of its nuclear technology.

“If we begin to negotiate again, it ought to be around a goal which has some chance of success,” he said.

Mr. Perry said the Trump administration would have to offer North Korea security assurances if it wanted to escape an increasingly dangerous spiral of confrontation. Previous administrations had mistakenly based their policies on the assumption that North Korea would collapse on their watch, Mr. Perry told a small group of reporters.

“I see very little prospect of a collapse,” he said. “For eight years in the Obama administration and eight years in the Bush administration, they were expecting that to happen. As a consequence, their policies were not very effective. I would think that the United States and other countries as well should stop expecting a collapse in North Korea.”

Mr. Perry said that American policy makers needed to grasp that North Korea’s leaders regarded their own survival in power, and especially the continuation of the Kim dynasty, as more important than improving the economy. He said that as long as the goal of the United States remained completely eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons, “I think we will continue to be unsuccessful.”

“It will take initiative, primarily by the United States, to be willing to talk with North Korea,” he said.

In Asia, on his first major trip overseas as secretary of state, Mr. Tillerson has been heavily scripted in his few public comments, and he has gone out of his way to make sure he is not subject to questions beyond highly controlled news conferences, at which his staff chooses the questioners. In a breach of past practice, he traveled without the usual State Department press corps, which has flown on the secretary’s plane for roughly half a century.

That group of reporters, many of them veterans of foreign policy and national security coverage, use the plane rides to try to get the secretary and other top State Department officials to explain American policy. Mr. Tillerson’s aides first said their plane was too small to accommodate the press corps and later said they were experimenting with new forms of coverage; then they opened a seat for a reporter from the web-based Independent Journal Review, which is aimed at younger, conservative-leaning readers. The site’s reporters have never traveled with the secretary before. There is also no “pool” reporter aboard, providing updates on the secretary’s activities to the rest of the press corps.

That decision is a striking departure for the State Department. Last May, department officials protested when Egypt’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, blocked pool reporters traveling with Secretary John Kerry from entering the presidential palace, and China frequently imposes similar restrictions to avoid unwanted questions to the Chinese leadership. (There is no news conference scheduled in China on Saturday.)

Mr. Tillerson appears to be using similar tactics during his travels, though the two news conferences he held on the trip were his first since taking office at the beginning of February.

Source: NYT > World

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