DENVER – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Northeast Asia represented an important opportunity for Donald Trump’s administration to set out its strategy for that critical region. In particular, it was a chance to begin to address what could turn out to be the biggest international challenge the administration faces in the coming four years: North Korea’s unrelenting push for deliverable nuclear weapons, without sparking a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula.
It is difficult to say precisely what Tillerson achieved on his short visit. The taciturn statesman not only refused to bring reporters along on his plane (breaking with decades of precedent); he provided only brief public statements that do not paint a particularly detailed or comprehensive picture.
In South Korea, with the required trip to the demilitarized zone on his mind, Tillerson intoned that President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” with the North was over. In light of the “failed policies” of the past decades, he declared, “a different approach” would be needed. He concluded with a favorite statement of American policymakers when there seems no obvious way forward: “all options are on the table,” he said, implying that military action should also be considered.
Tillerson’s utterances on Korea immediately became grist for the op-ed mill. The “all options” remark was music to the ears of those who somehow believe that there is nothing the US needs more than another war – and who are, no doubt, safely out of range of North Korean artillery. Finally, they report breathlessly, a senior US policymaker is seeing things clearly and saying what needs to be said.
Or is he? Tillerson’s apparently hard-hitting approach was not much in evidence on his next stop: Beijing. Instead, Tillerson showed a great deal of patience with the Chinese, indicating a willingness to work with them on North Korea, even setting aside contentious…