Rex Tillerson and the Effectiveness of the Anti-North Korea Sanctions

At a recent appearance at Stanford University, a give and take between former Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives us an interesting glimpse into America’s mindset when it comes to global affairs.  While the purpose of his talk was to discuss the U.S. vision of Syria’s future, he touched briefly on the subject of dealing with a “rogue” and nuclear-armed North Korea.

Thanks to the U.S. Deparment of State, we have the entire interview between Ms. Rice and Mr. Tillerson as shown here:

Mr. Tillerson starts to discuss his vision of the North Korean issue at the 15 minute and 22 second mark with these comments by Ms. Rice:

One final question before we let you go. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about where you started your remarks: North Korea. We’ve got false alarms going off in Hawaii. We’ve got people talking about war coming on the peninsula. At the same time, we’ve got the North Koreans and the South Koreans deciding they’re going to march together in the Olympics.

Do you have a sense at all that the rhetoric that we’ve used, the fact that perhaps the diplomacy is not as front and center as some of the talk about our military options, that we might be driving a wedge with our South Korean allies? I know when I was secretary and trying to do the Six-Party Negotiations, the North Koreans loved to drive a wedge to pick off the Chinese or pick off the South Koreans or pick off the Russians, and it was really important not for the United States to get isolated.

So how should we read these initiatives between the North and South? And tell us about the diplomacy, because I think we’re all in agreement, nobody really wants war on the peninsula, on the Korean Peninsula, despite the seriousness of the North Korean threat.”

Here is his response:

Well, our diplomacy efforts, which began really last February, the first week I was – after I was sworn in, I was with the President in the Oval and the very first foreign policy challenge that he gave me was he said you’ve got to develop a foreign policy approach to North Korea. And so we did and we worked that through the interagency process.

And what we – I labeled it the peaceful pressure campaign; the President has since relabeled it the maximum pressure campaign. But it is – and I know people say, “Ah, we’ve tried sanctions in the past. They never work.” We’ve never had a sanctions regime that is as comprehensive as this one, and we’ve never had Chinese support for sanctions like we’re getting now. Russia is a slightly different issue. But the Chinese have leaned in hard on the North Koreans to the point – part of this approach was to help the Chinese come to the realizations that North Korea for the last 50, 60 years may have been an asset to you; they’re now a liability to you. And I mean, it’s because of how events can play out on the Korean Peninsula. If China doesn’t help us solve this problem, there are a lot of follow-on effects, and China is well aware of those.

So, I think the diplomatic efforts are about unifying the international community around this sanctions campaign, which has been extraordinarily effective. As President Moon himself told us on the phone call – and I would tell you, we have probably – the level of communication that goes on between ourselves, South Korea, and China on this issue is pretty extraordinary. People would probably be surprised at how often we are on the phone with one another a week talking about this. Moon said the reason the South Koreans came to us was because they are feeling the bite of these sanctions. And we’re seeing it in some of the intel, we’re seeing it through anecdotal evidence coming out of defectors that are escaping.

Here is his key comment:

The Japanese made a comment yesterday in our session that they have had over 100 North Korean fishing boats that have drifted into Japanese waters – two-thirds of the people on those boats have died – they weren’t trying to escape – and the ones that didn’t die, they wanted to go back home. So they sent them back to North Korea. But what they learned is they’re being sent out in the wintertime to fish because there’s food shortages, and they’re being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.” (my bold)

Mr. Tillerson is referring to the appearance of so-called “ghost ships” which drift from North Korea into Japanese waters and then ground themselves on the Japanese coast, many of which contain dead crew members

As background, according to the Japan Times on January 16, 2018, we find the following:

In 2017, a record high number of 104 North Korean “ghost ships” appeared on the coastline of Japan. Because of food shortages in North Korea, many of these fishing vessels have been forced to fish during the winter when seas are much rougher and the risk of drowning or capsizing is much higher.

Here’s Mr. Tillerson again:

So we’re getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurtAnd so the rapprochement of the North to the South, now they’re on to the playbook that you know as well as anyone. And the playbook is, okay, we’re going to start our charm offensive to the rest of the world and let them see we’re just normal people like everybody else. We’re going to engender some sympathy. We’re going to try to drive a wedge between South Korea and their allies. And we spent an extraordinary amount of time yesterday in the group discussion hearing from Foreign Minister Kang of South Korea about how they’re not going to let that happen.

So we understand what this is about, and we’ve been supportive of this rapprochement, because the other element of the diplomacy is we’ve been waiting for Kim to decide he wants to talk. We’ve been very clear, and our channels are open. And as I said yesterday in my press avail, he knows how to reach me if he wants to talk. But he’s got to tell me he wants to talk. We’re not going to chase him.

So this may be their early effort to break the ice; we’ll see. Nothing may come of it, but – we are supportive of that, but I would tell you that among the allies in the region, but equally with China, I don’t think we have ever been as unified against this threat. Because China knows the potential consequences of this, to unintended consequences that could come later. And in diplomacy, where you’re dealing with someone across the table like this, and when we get to that negotiating table – and I’m confident we will – I want to know that Secretary Mattis has a very, very strong military option standing behind me. That will give me a better position from which to try to solve this.” (my bolds)

As you can see, Mr. Tillerson feels that he has the North Koreans over the proverbial barrel.  He seeks to minimize the recent moves by North Korea and South Korea to show a united front during the 2018 Winter Olympics, stating that this is just another part of North Korea’s “charm offensive”.   As well, in Mr. Tillerson’s vision, it matters little that the sanctions imposed on North Korea, at the behest of the United States, are causing food and fuel shortages for millions of North Koreans as long as it means that the United States will get its way when it comes to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program.  If sanctions fail to pressure the North Koreans into submission, at least Mr. Tillerson can rest assured that the Pentagon has his back and is ready to use its military might to force Pyongyang into backing down.  We all know how well that worked in the early 1950s, don’t we? 

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