Tillerson suggested earlier this week that the U.S. would be willing to talk to North Korea without preconditions, but the White House immediately made clear that his words didn’t mean anything:
President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson are once again at odds over how to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea after Mr. Tillerson declared on Tuesday that the United States was ready to open talks with the North “without precondition.”
The secretary’s comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.
In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Mr. Trump’s position on North Korea had not changed — namely, that talks were pointless if the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, continued to menace his neighbors.
Tillerson has been publicly undermined so many times by the Trump White House that it is safe to assume that the Secretary of State never speaks for the president when he says anything remotely reasonable. Whenever Tillerson has expressed an openness to talking to North Korea’s government, Trump has been quick to contradict him. This has made it impossible to take conciliatory rhetoric from Tillerson seriously, and it has underscored just how deep Trump’s disdain for diplomacy truly is. That can only make North Korea’s government even more skeptical of the value of entering into talks with Washington.
In the latest example of Trump administration foreign policy dysfunction, the White House undercut Tillerson because they supposedly didn’t want to create confusion about U.S. policy:
White House officials were alarmed by Mr. Tillerson’s conciliatory tone, according to several people, because they feared that it would sow confusion among allies after Mr. Trump rallied them behind a policy of “maximum pressure.”
It is the president’s habit of gainsaying his own Secretary of State at almost every turn that sows confusion and makes it impossible for Tillerson to do his job. Floating the possibility that the U.S. is willing to talk to North Korea wouldn’t confuse anyone. When Tillerson hinted that the U.S. was open to doing this, his remarks were greeted with relief because it suggested that the administration might not be as inflexible and confrontational as it has been all year long. There is no longer any pretense that there is some sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine at work here, since the administration is quick to telegraph to the rest of the world that the would-be “good cop” should be ignored entirely.
The bigger problem with the administration’s North Korea policy is that the U.S. and North Korea continue to talk past one another:
For her part, Choe signaled that North Korea had its own red line. Speaking to a group of former U.S. officials in separate meeting in Oslo, Choe said that her government would not enter into talks with the United States if Washington sought to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL], according to a source familiar with those talks.
Administration officials imagine that the purpose of talks with North Korea is to get them to give up the very thing that they will never talk about with us. No talks can possibly succeed when one side is seeking the elimination of the other side’s sine qua non, and it is very troubling that no one in the administration understands this.