Trump slam on Tillerson raises more questions about North Korea policy

President Trump muddled his North Korea strategy further over the weekend when he appeared to undercut his own secretary of State, driving more concerns from experts that the administration has no clear strategy.

A day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged publicly for the first time that the United States has been in direct contact with North Korea, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time.”

The public lashing stunned Korea watchers, leaving them scratching their heads as to where U.S. policy goes if diplomacy really is off the table.

{mosads}“It raises a question, which has been around for a while, which is, ‘Who’s in charge of foreign policy?’ ” said retired Col. Richard Klass, a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “You just read it and shake your head and say there’s no coherence in this administration and no coherence to this guy.”

During a visit to Beijing on Saturday where North Korea was a top subject, Tillerson told reporters that the United States has communicated directly with Pyongyang about its nuclear and missile programs.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson said. “We ask: ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later elaborated that “North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.”

In Sunday morning tweets, Trump publicly called out Tillerson’s negotiation efforts.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted, using his nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Trump continued.

The White House on Monday sought to clarify, saying Trump still has faith in Tillerson and that the only talks have been about the three Americans detained in North Korea and student Otto Wambier, who died in June after being released from North Korea in a coma.

“We’ve been clear that now is not the time to talk,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a press briefing. “The only conversations that have taken place, or that would, would be on bringing back Americans who have been detained.”

She added the administration supports “diplomatic pressure” over talks.

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said he believes Trump’s tweets were meant as a comment on North Korea’s lack of interest in talks, rather than a reaction to Tillerson himself.

Still, Kazianis said Trump could be clearer about his intentions and that the interpretation of the tweets as undercutting Tillerson confuses everyone, from China to allies like South Korea and Japan to D.C. analysts and the North Koreans themselves.

“I think it muddles things for everybody,” Kazianis said. “I’m confused at this point. I think what needs to happen is everybody get on same page and speak with one voice.”

Trump goes back and forth on his stance on talks, Kazianis continued. He cited Trump’s response to a reporter last month who asked if negotiations were still an option.

“Why not?” Trump responded at the United Nations General Assembly.

Kazianis said the “stakes are way too high” for diplomacy to stay off the table.

“I’ve never seen the stress on both sides and the possibility of armed conflict ever get this high before,” he said.

Klass, the retired colonel, also said that Trump might change his mind about diplomacy.

“The thing is next week, he’ll say that we’re on the diplomatic track,” Klass said. “If Kim doesn’t do anything like another missile or nuclear test, he may say nice things about him and about diplomacy.”

Klass said he could not recall a president publicly calling out a secretary of State like Trump did, though he did note that former President Carter’s secretary of State resigned after Carter went against his recommendation and ordered a botched rescue operation during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said Monday that diplomacy is not dead yet, citing Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s support for diplomacy, as well as efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Still, Bremmer acknowledged that Trump’s tweets did undermine Tillerson.

“Yet another indication that Tillerson isn’t long for the job. But, for the umpteenth time, Trump’s tweets aren’t policy,” Bremmer wrote to clients. “It’s not as if there’s a breakthrough on the near horizon, but there’s now a number of actors trying to figure out what parameters of real negotiations would need to look like. That’s progress.”

Administration officials accept that there’s no preemptive military option, Bremmer added.

“It’s not clear that president trump personally accepts that,” he wrote, “but everyone I’ve spoken with in the administration does.”

Tags James Mattis Rex Tillerson

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