Surreal might be one word to describe the scene at the Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was openly contemplating a hypothetical situation wherein the United States would strike a nuclear accord with North Korea, the very same country his boss, President Donald J. Trump, a day prior threatened to wipe off the face of the earth.
America’s top diplomat uttered these words after emerging from a ministerial on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly where he “exchanged views” with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action governing Tehran’s nuclear program, the same deal the U.S. Commander-in-Chief has repeatedly vowed to tear asunder.
Mr. Tillerson was, well, diplomatic when asked about comments emanating from Iran’s leadership that it would be a waste of time to even talk to the Trump administration.
“As a longtime negotiator, I learned to never say never,” Mr. Tillerson said with his aw-shucks Texas drawl. “And second, it always gets the darkest before you might have a breakthrough.”
It is somewhat refreshing to know that there is at least one person within the Trump administration daring enough to shake hands with an Iranian official and willing to even consider negotiating with North Korea. Yet it is awfully hard to fathom Mr. Tillerson’s voice of reason ever registering, for Mr. Trump is a man who has shown nothing but contempt for diplomacy, middle ground, or long-term planning.
Mr. Tillerson, in his previous job as Exxon CEO, often made decisions related to projects with a 30-year to half-century timeframe in mind. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, looks ahead about half seconds, even regarding decisions of existential import.
The New York billionaire’s bombastic near-sighted approach has obviously won out and is dominating U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Trump seems oblivious, however, to how his bellicose words and actions, including his approach to Iran, actually influence the decision-making process in Pyongyang.
National Iranian American Council Assistant Policy Director, Ryan Costello, told The Globe Post that the North Koreans will be watching closely to see if Mr. Trump honors U.S. commitments to Tehran.
“His [Mr. Trump’s] actions and rhetoric on Iran are helping to ensure that Kim Jong-un hugs his nuclear weapons and missile program all the tighter,” Mr. Costello said. “If the Iran nuclear deal is killed by Trump, the U.S. will have zero credibility to sit down with the North Koreans for negotiations.”
The U.S. president is issuing unilateral demands and threatening to completely destroy a nuclear-armed adversary instead of engaging in the difficult task of building trust, Mr. Costello said.
“It is the height of irresponsibility, yet there is no sign that Trump plans to change his disastrous course,” he added.
Dr. Bruce Cumings, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, told The Globe Post that Mr. Trump’s heartless and heedless statements directed at North Korea and its people may actually reflect the president’s own deep insecurity.
“Whatever else one might think, such rhetoric is totally counterproductive and will probably goad the North into another missile or A-bomb test,” Dr. Cumings argued.
Dr. Cumings also noted the irony that for eight years, from 1994 to 2002, North Korea was under the same IAEA monitoring program that Iran is now facing.
“In other words North Korea was a forerunner of the Iran inspection regime, until George W. Bush thoughtlessly and stupidly torpedoed the 1994 Framework Agreement, leading to the North recovering all of its plutonium and, by 2006, testing its first A-bomb,” Dr. Cumings said.
Now it seems that Mr. Trump wants to follow Mr. Bush over the same precipice by faulting UN inspectors while kicking away all controls on Iran’s nuclear program, he added.
Threats or intimidation have never been effective against Pyongyang, Cumings said. The U.S., for example, has rehearsed regime change for North Korea and “decapitation” exercises for at least 25 years.
In terms of possible solutions, Dr. Cumings said China’s “dual freeze” proposal – which calls for North Korea halting nuclear activity in exchange for the U.S. suspending military exercises – might be an option because a similar plan laid the foundation for the 1994 Framework Agreement.
Dr. Benjamin Habib, a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, told The Globe Post that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric in the United Nations will have zero impact on decision-making in Pyongyang.
“North Korea can’t be out-toughed in the inflammatory rhetoric department,” Dr. Habib said.
Mr. Trump’s threats about the Iran deal are likely only to confirm Pyongyang’s suspicions about the unreliability of the U.S. as a negotiating partner and reaffirm their perceived need for nuclear weapons, he added.
Dr. Habib also said that the “dual freeze” proposal has merit but primarily as a starting point for negotiations.
“Given that North Korea is so close to deploying a fully operational nuclear weapons capability, they are unlikely to discuss any freeze until their nuclear capability is in place,” he suggested. “In this instance, the ‘freeze’ would probably apply to the number of nuclear warheads produced and deployed.”
Mr. Tillerson’s philosophy of “never say never” is certainly a healthy attitude to carry as the nation’s top diplomat. Yet with respect to North Korea and Iran it seems like things are growing darker by the minute, with no breakthrough in sight.