Rex Tillerson added to the list of irresponsible administration statements on North Korea yesterday:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out pursuing a traditional Cold War-style containment and deterrence strategy against a nuclear-armed North Korea, citing concerns that Pyongyang will transform its arsenal into a commercial business and sell nuclear weapons to other actors.
The Trump administration seems desperate to find excuses for rejecting containment and deterrence as the appropriate responses to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. If there is reason to worry that North Korea might try selling nuclear weapons to others, that suggests that the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to strangle the regime economically. The more sanctions that the U.S. and others impose on North Korea, the more attractive we make it for them to get into the business of proliferation. It seems unlikely that any regime would part with costly, hard-won weapons such as these, and the burden of proof is on the people rejecting deterrence to show otherwise.
Tillerson got some premature credit yesterday for saying that the U.S. was willing to talk without preconditions. The White House quickly shot this down anyway, but Tillerson’s other remarks show that the opening is less meaningful than it appears. As long as denuclearization remains the administration’s goal in North Korea, the policy remains as unrealistic as ever. Explicitly ruling out containment and deterrence as Tillerson just did implies that the only things that the administration will accept are negotiated surrender or preventive war. Since North Korea can be expected to reject the former, that leaves us with the frightening prospect of an unnecessary war with an unacceptably high cost.
The Secretary of State’s reasoning on this matter is not persuasive. He said:
The difference is that with the past behavior of North Korea, it is clear to us that they would not just use the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This would become a commercial activity for them.
But this is not clear at all. Engaging in the proliferation of conventional weapons and missile technology is not the same as selling off nukes. The administration is assuming that North Korea would treat its nuclear weapons like any another commodity and deliver them to the highest bidder. That is a huge leap for which there is no evidence, and it is on the basis that unfounded assumption that the administration is rejecting the one proven way of defending against an adversary with nuclear weapons.