Unless Donald Trump objects, the U.S. could start talking to North Korea

First it was Mike Pence. Now it's Rex Tillerson. High-ranking Americans want talks, but Trump doesn't

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 13, 2018 9:12AM (EST)

Rex Tillerson (AP/Cliff Owen)
Rex Tillerson (AP/Cliff Owen)

The United States has indicated that it is willing to engage in talks with North Korea — although, given President Donald Trump's penchant for throwing a wrench into bilateral talks with that country, it remains to be seen if anything will materialize from this strategic shift.

Instead of demanding that North Korea put itself on a path toward denuclearization before engaging in talks, the United States has instead worked with South Korea in demonstrating a willingness to talk with the Kim Jong-un regime, according to The Wall Street Journal. The solidarity between the United States and South Korea on this approach was reinforced during a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Winter Olympics. As Pence later explained, their approach was one of "maximum pressure and engagement at the same time" toward the wayward North Korean government.

"We really need to have some discussions that precede any formal negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something meaningful," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained while visiting the Egyptian city of Cairo.

It is worth noting that this change in policy does not represent an abandonment of Trump's previous hard-line stance toward North Korea. The United States continues to keep military options on the table and supports tough international sanctions until North Korea engages in denuclearization talks. What's more, North Korea has not displayed any willingness thus far to open up talks with the United States.

But the fact that the major policy overtures have so far come from Pence and Tillerson raises questions about whether the new willingness to talk will actually last, once Trump himself directly enters the fray. Last year the president stirred up considerable controversy when he publicly undercut Tillerson's attempts to open up diplomatic relations with North Korea, even tweeting that his own Secretary of State was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man . . ."

While Trump's use of Twitter as a tool for engaging in diplomacy has been unconventional, his administration's willingness to open up talks with North Korea suggests that a more conventional approach to foreign policymaking may start to prevail within the White House.

"I'm not a fan of the Twitter diplomacy that Trump often tries to use," Jamie Fly, a foreign policy expert with the German Marshall Fund, told Salon in November. "I think the reality, though, is that Kim Jong-un — because he is so intent on acquiring this nuclear capability of hitting the United States — he is an erratic, unpredictable figure. So I don't think the risky partner in this equation is Donald Trump. It's Kim Jong-un."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Denuclearization Donald Trump Mike Pence North Korea Rex Tillerson South Korea