Who speaks for US on N. Korea? Contradictions emerge as Tillerson heads to Asia

Story highlights

  • Top US officials haven't been consistent on North Korea policy, analysts say
  • On July 28 North Korea tested missile that could potentially hit US mainland

Hong Kong (CNN)US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Asia later this week for a regional meeting on security issues, which is expected to be attended by ministers from North Korea, China, South Korea and Japan.

It could be an opportune moment for a diplomatic breakthrough on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, which have been causing massive headaches for US President Donald Trump. But questions linger over whether Tillerson can speak for his administration given contradictory remarks from US politicians.
    "The Trump administration is still scrambling to find a policy on North Korea. They're still seeking an easy solution when none exist," said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
    "They are trying out various options and they have been contradictory on nearly every policy that they have tried on or tried out."
    On Tuesday, Tillerson said the US was willing to talk to North Korea, while US Senator Lindsey Graham said military options are "inevitable if North Korea continues" on its current path of weapons development.
    The Trump administration policy on North Korea has been to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang with sanctions in order to push them to the negotiating table.
    However, some North Korea watchers worry that inconsistent and opaque messaging from the United States has hamstrung their position when it comes to North Korea, a country which test-fired two long-range missiles in July that could theoretically reach the US mainland.
    "The way that the message is coming out, it's a bit confusing on the surface of it," said Dr. John Park, the director of the Korea Working Group and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School.
    US officials have steadily condemned North Korea's missile tests, which are a violation of international law. Some policies and talking points have remained unchanged, the biggest being that negotiations without North Korea committing to denuclearization up-front are a non-starter.
    Phrases such as "all options are on the table" and "the era of strategic patience is over" are common refrains from Trump's team, but there have been a dearth of specifics. Changes in tone have been commonplace.
    Here are some examples of this inconsistency since North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on July 28:

    Military response

    • Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an important member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said a military response to Pyongyang's weapons program is "inevitable if North Korea continues." He also said President Trump promised him "if there's going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there, they're not going to die here and (President Donald Trump) told me that to my face."
    • What's been said before: US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in May that war on the Korean Peninsula would be "tragic on an unbelievable scale." Analysts say that Trump's promise to Graham would be a violation of the spirit of the mutual defense treaty between the two countries. "The comments were extremely irresponsible. It's a dangerous sign to our allies that we don't have their best interests in heart," Mount said. "We stand up for our allies because we believe that the lives of allied citizens are as valuable as the lives of American citizens."

    Negotiations

    • Secretary Tillerson told reporters at a briefing Tuesday that the United States was willing to sit down and negotiate with North Korea if it were to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs and give up those missiles. "We do not seek regime change. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel," Tillerson said. "We would like to sit and have a dialogue about the future."
    • What's been said before: Ambassador Nikki Haley, the US representative to the United Nations, said the "time for talk is over" after the Friday missile test, though she was referring to the UN Security Council rather than direct talks involving the hermit state. Speaking last month at an annual security forum in the Aspen, Colorado, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said "it would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today. So from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two," Pompeo said, hinting at the idea of regime change in North Korea, albeit in a very opaque manner.

    China's role

    • Secretary Tillerson also said Tuesday that the United States doesn't blame Beijing -- Pyongyang's most important ally and trading partner -- for the current situation with North Korea, but noted that "China has a special and unique relationship because of this significant economic activity to influence the North Korean regime in ways that no one else can
    • What's been said before: President Trump took to Twitter to slam the Chinese after the Friday missile test for not doing enough to rein in their neighbor. "They do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue China could easily solve this problem!" he said. Though the comments don't directly contradict what Tillerson said, the tones are strikingly different.

    A thrilla in Manila?

    Though Tillerson seemed to warm to the idea of negotiations Tuesday, the United States has maintained for years -- including during the Bush and Obama administrations -- that North Korea and its leader must agree to denculearization up front for talks to proceed.
    That's likely a non-starter for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now, who looks at former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- who did not have nuclear weapons -- and Libya's Moammar Gaddafi -- who gave up his nuclear ambitions for sanctions relief and aid, only to be toppled and killed after the US intervened in the country's civil unrest -- and see the ability to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon as the key to preventing any US-led attempts at regime change.
    Analysts worry that the contradictory messaging and the United States' failure to grasp that North Korea's ability to nuke the United States is no longer just theoretical is dangerous.
    "What we're seeing is a sense of panic and urgency in the United States," said Park of Harvard University.
    Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nonproliferation issues and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey, said the recent test should be a reality-check for policy makers in the United States about the seriousness of the issue.
    "We see all types of evidence that this is a real and serious nuclear program and missile program. They are putting a lot of money into it," Lewis told CNN's Kristie Lu Stout. "We (Americans) always treat North Korea like it's some kind of joke. They are not laughing and the joke is on us."