(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

"Empty suit" Rex Tillerson: Efforts at North Korean "denuclearization have failed," leaves "all options on the table"

Tillerson says that the U.S. may need to act against North Korea, but it's not clear if his government backs him up

Matthew Rozsa
March 17, 2017 4:40PM (UTC)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has some harsh words for North Korea — but given that he has been effectively marginalized within President Donald Trump's administration, does he have any power with which to back them up?

"I think it's important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed," Tillerson said during a series of visits to South Korea and Japan on Thursday. He said that he planned on going to Asia "to exchange views on a new approach," and went so far as to declare that "all of the options are on the table."


While Tillerson's comments may be warranted in light of North Korea's recent missile tests, it is possible that he lacks the power to actually convince anyone of their relevance.

As Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, told The Japan Times: "I think the Tillerson statement is empty rhetoric. … (It) sounds good, but (there is) nothing there. The general thinking in D.C. is that Tillerson is an empty suit."

The Times also quoted a recent Foreign Policy article by Professor Robert Jervis, who studies international politics at Columbia University, which referred to Tillerson as possibly "the weakest secretary of state ever" and pointed out that "Tillerson has . . . been absent for most of Trump’s meetings with visiting leaders. He likewise does not seem to be playing a central role in the few foreign-policy decisions that the Trump administration has made. There is no evidence that his advice was sought when Trump huddled with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January after a North Korean missile launch."


The one advantage that Trump has, according to what Tsuneno Watanabe of the Sasagawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo told The Times, is that "North Korea would strike a compromise only if it is convinced that America may actually resort to a military option." Because Trump is widely viewed as "unpredictable," Tillerson's words could cause apprehension in that respect.

Then again, it certainly doesn't help that Tillerson is the one saying them.



Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Donald Trump Japan North Korea Rex Tillerson

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