Trump Says Tillerson Is ‘Wasting His Time’ on North Korea
President Trump undercut his own secretary of state on Sunday, calling his effort to open lines of communication with North Korea a waste of time, and seeming to rule out a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear-edged confrontation with Pyongyang.
A day after Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said he was reaching out to Pyongyang in hopes of starting a new dialogue, Mr. Trump belittled the idea and left the impression that he was focused mainly on military options. Mr. Trump was privately described by advisers as furious at Mr. Tillerson for contradicting the president’s public position that now is not the time for talks.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, using the derogatory nickname he has assigned to Kim Jong-un , the North Korean leader. “Save your energy Rex,” he added , “we’ll do what has to be done!”
While some analysts wondered if the president was intentionally playing bad cop to the secretary’s good cop, veteran diplomats said they could not remember a time when a president undermined his secretary of state so brazenly in the midst of a tense situation, and the episode raised fresh questions about how long Mr. Tillerson would remain in his job.
A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil with no prior government experience, Mr. Tillerson has been deeply frustrated and has told associates that he tries to ignore the president’s Twitter blasts. But these would be hard to disregard as Mr. Tillerson returned from China , where he was trying to enlist more support from North Korea’s primary trading partner and political patron.
“It may be intended as a good-cop, bad-cop strategy, but the tweet is so over the top that it undercuts Tillerson,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council. “It’s hard to imagine any other president speaking in this manner.”
Christopher R. Hill, who under President George W. Bush was the last American negotiator to reach a significant agreement with North Korea, said, “Clearly, it is part of his management style, which seems to be to undermine his people at every turn.” While Mr. Hill took issue with the way Mr. Tillerson handled his disclosure in Beijing on Saturday, “Trump’s tweet undermines Tillerson’s visit, leaving his interlocutors wondering why they are wasting the time to speak with him.”
But Michael Green, who was Mr. Bush’s chief Asia adviser, said the time was not ripe yet for talks. “The president is right on this one in the sense that Pyongyang is clear it will not put nuclear weapons on the negotiating table, nor will the current level of sanctions likely convince them to do so, though an effective sanctions regime might in time,” he said.
Indeed, several hours after his initial tweets, Mr. Trump seemed to preclude the possibility that the time might ever be ripe, without laying out his own preferred strategy. “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?” he wrote , evidently referring not just to Mr. Kim, who took over six years ago, but also his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder. “Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”
North Korea has provoked a conflict with the United States and its Asian allies in recent weeks with its sixth test of a nuclear bomb and its first successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially deliver a warhead to the United States mainland. Mr. Trump has responded by vowing to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend the United States or its allies, while ratcheting up economic pressure through sanctions.
Mr. Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Beijing on Saturday that he was seeking a diplomatic solution. “We are probing, so stay tuned,” he said. For the first time, he disclosed that the United States had two or three channels to Pyongyang asking “Would you like to talk?” Therefore, he said, “we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.”
There have been no indications that Mr. Kim is any more interested in talks than Mr. Trump. He has responded to the president’s threats with more of his own, castigating Mr. Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and suggesting through his foreign minister that he might order the first atmospheric nuclear test the world has seen in 37 years.
Negotiations with North Korea have long proved frustrating to American leaders. Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton both tried talks and granted concessions while ultimately failing to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. But national security analysts have said there is no viable military option at this point without risking devastating casualties.
White House officials made no official comment on Mr. Tillerson’s disclosure or Mr. Trump’s reaction, but advisers privately said the president was upset at being caught off guard. At the same time, they did not rule out diplomacy as a possible path forward eventually. On the campaign trail last year, Mr. Trump expressed a willingness to negotiate with Mr. Kim over a hamburger. He plans to visit China, South Korea and Japan in November, among other destinations, to keep up regional pressure on Pyongyang.
Despite the president’s message, Mr. Tillerson’s spokeswoman said diplomacy remained possible. “#DPRK will not obtain a nuclear capability,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter after Mr. Trump’s tweet, using initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Diplomatic channels are open for #KimJongUn for now. They won’t be open forever.” She did not explain what she meant about not obtaining a nuclear capability, which North Korea already has.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States had no choice but to seek a diplomatic agreement.
“I think that there’s more going on than meets the eye,” he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC before the president’s tweets. “I think Tillerson understands that every intelligence agency we have says there’s no amount of economic pressure you can put on North Korea to get them to stop this program because they view this as their survival.”
While advisers said Mr. Trump’s comments were born out of aggravation at Mr. Tillerson, he could be attempting his own version of Richard M. Nixon’s “madman” theory, casting himself as trigger-happy to bolster the bargaining power of his aides. Mr. Trump has often talked about the value of seeming willing to pull out of agreements like the Iran nuclear deal, South Korea free trade pact and Paris climate accords, to stake out a position in negotiations.
But this is qualitatively different. A misreading of North Korea could result in an atmospheric nuclear test or an artillery barrage against Seoul, the South Korean capital. Mr. Kim likes to play madman as well. Yet he has little incentive to begin talks now and may be betting that in the end the Trump administration would settle for a freeze in testing, leaving him with a medium-size nuclear force that serves his purposes.
North Korea has divided administrations over strategy before. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in 2001 that the new Bush administration would continue Mr. Clinton’s approach, Mr. Bush angrily called Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, and instructed her to tell the secretary to correct himself. Mr. Powell then publicly fell on his sword and said he had gotten “too far forward” on his skis. When Mr. Bush was ready for negotiations in his second term, Mr. Hill found persistent resistance from Vice President Dick Cheney.
But none encountered the sort of public contradiction from the president that Mr. Tillerson did. Mr. Trump has made clear he does not mind publicly breaking with cabinet secretaries, as he did last summer when he castigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “very weak.” And he has contradicted Mr. Tillerson before as well, launching a harsh broadside against the Persian Gulf state of Qatar barely an hour after the secretary of state called for a “calm and thoughtful dialogue.”
Mr. Tillerson’s comments in Beijing on Saturday night did not appear spontaneous. After hours in the Great Hall of the People, where he met separately with China’s foreign minister, state councilor and then President Xi Jinping, he sat down with a group of American reporters in the living room of the home of the American ambassador, Terry Branstad.
He appeared relaxed, though tired after more than a day of travel, and was forthright, if typically brief, about his efforts to lower the temperature between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim and open a diplomatic channel.
He volunteered that there had been “direct contact” with North Korea and emphasized the point several times. His comment seemed surprising because just days before, speaking at a conference in Washington, the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, had said there had been no diplomatic contact, and that if it began “hopefully it will not make it into The New York Times.”
Trump has pushed American policy toward less diplomatic solutions when dealing with foreign policy, by cutting the State Department’s budget and refusing to hire ambassadors to key positions.