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Rex Tillerson’s ‘new approach’ to North Korea sounds a lot like the old approach

He even used the same language as the Obama and Bush administrations.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se during a visit to Seoul on March 17. Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/Reuters

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showed up in Asia this month, he announced that the United States would take a “new approach ” to North Korea. Tillerson avoided any specifics of how he planned to get a different result, but he was well armed with platitudes — he spoke of decades of failed “diplomatic and other efforts,” joined the Japanese foreign minister in calling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs “totally unacceptable,” and urged the North’s leaders “to change your path.” Shortly after Tillerson departed, North Korea attempted yet another missile launch.

Poor Tillerson. Someone forgot to tell him that a new administration promising a new approach it can’t quite articulate is, in fact, the old approach. Previous administrations even used the same words, calling North Korea’s actions “unacceptable” and pointing to a different “path.” And yet, even though President Barack Obama pledged to “break that pattern” of North Korea getting away with belligerent behavior, and President George W. Bush compared the country’s dictatorship to a toddler who throws food on the floor, the sad truth is that promising to break the pattern is part of the pattern, and we always pick up the food. We, too, could choose a different path. But we don’t.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been racing ahead. After five apparently successful nuclear tests and with so many extended-range missiles at its disposal, few experts doubt that Pyongyang can make good on its promise to arm its missiles with nuclear weapons. It regularly rehearses missile launches against U.S. forces stationed in Japan and South Korea, is developing a new generation of solid-fuel missiles and will soon begin testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Washington and other major U.S. cities. A thermonuclear weapon cannot be far behind.

We have accepted the development of a nuclear-armed North Korea, having neither the bravado to attack nor the courage to lower our expectations for a diplomatic settlement. Of course, military action would have been madness, even before the country was armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. And the politics of negotiating with Pyongyang are terrible. What North Korea wants is recognition that it is a normal country. But it is not a normal country. It is a vicious police state that abducts and ransoms foreign citizens, terrorizes its neighbors with military provocations, and exploits every agreement to its benefit. The optics, to use a Washington word, of the president enjoying a state dinner with the rotund Kim Jong Un, while his people starve, are unappealing.

Still, even after it became clear in 2002 that Pyongyang was beginning a covert uranium enrichment program to open a second route to the bomb, it was a mistake to end negotiations over North Korea’s missile programs and abandon the denuclearization deal that President Bill Clinton had won in 1994. Almost immediately, Bush regretted it — and he spent the rest of his time in office attempting to renegotiate, though six-party talks, a watered-down version of the deal he had discarded. The Obama administration, too, made halfhearted efforts at negotiating, including a comical attempt to strike a “Leap Day deal.” Veterans of both administrations will tell you that they tried. But those attempts were in service of an unrealistic hope for an agreement that was better than the one we had walked away from, even though that became less likely with each passing year as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities grew.

And so, what we have chosen is a policy of scolding and sanctions, letting North Korea do whatever it wants while sounding very cross about it and pretending that sanctions will solve the problem. “Belligerent, provocative behavior that threatens neighbors will be met with significant, serious enforcement of sanctions that are in place,” Obama said. Tillerson spoke of sending “very strong messages to North Korea by way of the sanctions — sanctions which have already been imposed by the U.N. Security Council resolutions — and to ask that everyone fully implement those sanctions.”

U.S. officials have made a fetish of sanctions. Ask Obama administration officials how the United States secured the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, and they will say it was the pain of sanctions that forced Tehran to the table. Ask any opponents, and they will tell you that leaving sanctions in place longer and prolonging the pain would have yielded an even better deal.

While sanctions relief played into Hassan Rouhani’s campaign for the Iranian presidency, there was another, more important factor in securing the nuclear agreement: The United States made significant concessions. The Bush and Obama administrations had both insisted that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program and accept a limit of zero centrifuges. The nuclear deal, however, did not require Iran to eliminate its centrifuges but rather put in place a 10-year limit of 5,060 centrifuges enriching uranium. The result is a satisfactory agreement that mitigates the risk of proliferation while avoiding a war. But for many members of Congress, that’s not good enough. They also need to hear about how the agreement was a humiliating defeat imposed on Iran by our power.

Refusing to admit that concessions played the crucial role with Iran makes it hard to see that they would be required with North Korea. Instead, we imagine that our sanctions are somehow insufficient or, more darkly, being undermined. We blame, as we so often do, the Chinese. “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “China has done little to help!”

It’s true that the Chinese don’t have the same faith in the mythical power of sanctions. Until recently, Beijing’s approach was to use trade to cultivate a cadre of wealthy, powerful and pro-Chinese North Koreans. Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, was probably the most important figure in this faction — until Kim ordered his goons to drag Jang out of a meeting, beat him and then execute him, along with his top aides, reportedly with an antiaircraft machine gun. That was before North Korean agents assassinated Kim Jong Nam — the dictator’s half brother who for many years had been living under Chinese protection in Macau on an allowance reportedly provided by Uncle Jang — by rubbing VX nerve agent on his face in a crowded Malaysian airport.

With the pro-Chinese faction in North Korea obliterated, China’s influence might be useful at specific moments, such as getting North Korea to attend a meeting. But even a complete Chinese break wouldn’t compel North Korea to change course. If anything, it would reinforce Pyongyang’s decision to look out for itself. We shouldn’t expect pressure from Beijing to fix our North Korea problem.

Instead, we should consider how our policies need to change and what concessions we might trade for different behavior from North Korea. I don’t believe that Pyongyang is going to abandon its nuclear or missile programs. But we might successfully seek a freeze in nuclear and missile testing that prevents North Korea from advancing those programs even further. Its leadership has been clear about what it might want in exchange for such a pause, including a reduction in military exercises, acceptance of their space launch program and an easing of the regime’s isolation.

I know all the predictable protests against this approach. We’ll alarm our allies and embolden our enemies. Those aren’t unpersuasive objections, but they are also precisely how we ended up with today’s policy. If we accept those objections, we are choosing to stay our current course, with the always-new old approach, the one in which we accept an unacceptable nuclear program and gently chide North Korea for walking with us down the path of confrontation.