Rex Tillerson embarks on Asia trip amid Korea concerns

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is taking off for Japan, South Korea and China this week for his maiden trip to the region. Amid North Korean missile testing and after a campaign in which President Trump criticized all three countries, the trip is designed to cement U.S. commitment to allies and initiate a conversation on how to best tackle the North’s provocations.

The four-day trip will immerse Tillerson in an intensive diplomatic crash course -- he’ll meet each of the country’s foreign ministers and travel with the State Department’s top experts to the region.

As Tillerson makes connections with his counterparts, there are concerns about how seriously he will be taken, given his quiet posture thus far.  

One former Defense Department Asia specialist said that the challenge could come when hard conversations need to be had, and world leaders have questions. “Do they think, ‘Maybe I should hold out and try to have this conversation with the White House, instead of Tillerson, because I’m not sure that this guy can deliver?’”

Foreign leaders have already shown that they are not relying on Tillerson as their way into the White House. Japanese officials say that their primary way of communicating with the U.S. is currently through the White House, more so than during the Obama presidency. Mattis and McMaster also have open channels of communications with their counterparts in Japanese counterparts, which could dilute Tillerson’s sway even further. 

No one is expecting this trip to result in significant achievements or announcements. The Japanese have described the visit as the tending of a garden, an exercise undertaken by regular allies. They also do not want to jump the gun on decisions regarding North Korea, according to the Japanese embassy spokesperson Tamaki Tsukada.

“I would not have high expectations that we’d have a completely new or clear game plan at the end of this visit,” explains Susan Shirk, the Chair of the 21st Century China Center at U.C. San Diego. The State Department is still conducting a review of the North Korea policy for the White House that is expected to be completed in the next few weeks. 

There’s some urgency in quickly working with the regional powers on calibrating the reaction to North Korea’s provocations, especially given its nuclear aspirations and capabilities. These discussions will be closely watched, since North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the ocean off Japan just last week. The State Department deemed the test a “flagrant and repeated disregard for multiple U.N. Security Council resolution violations.”
 
The Obama administration took the position that China should be constantly pressured to go along with more severe sanctions on North Korea. Obama himself predicted and hoped the regime would not last.


 
“The kind of authoritarianism that exists there, you almost can’t duplicate anywhere else. It’s brutal and it’s oppressive and, as a consequence, the country can’t really even feed its own people,” Obama said in early 2015 in a Youtube interview. “Over time, you will see a regime like this collapse.”
 
Obama’s policies did not deter the nation from going forward with missile and nuclear tests. The North has carried out 24 ballistic missile tests and two nuclear detonation tests in the last year. It was a “blockbuster” year of testing, according to experts.
 
“With the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience they expected North Korea to come crying  ‘Uncle.’ But they are not crying,” explained one Senior State Department official.
 
Mounting frustrations over the ineffectiveness of Chinese sanctions and the continued North Korean testing would suggest the avenue for diplomacy is narrowing, but that’s not what the U.N. ambassador believes. 

“This is not the time for us to talk about freezing or dialogue with North Korea,” Nikki Haley recently said.

In spite of the setbacks, the State Department does not want to nix the potential for talks with North Korea. 
 
“I would be very wary of jumping to conclusions about whether a new administration has turned away from diplomacy as an option,” says Danny Russel, the State Department’s recently departed assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who will continue diplomatic work at the Asia Society.

The key is China, Russel says.

“It is almost impossible to have much of an impact on North Korea in anything other than military terms without going through China because China represents over 95 percent of all of North Korea commerce with the external world. That gives the Chinese a tremendous amount of leverage,” Russel said.


 
As long as China believes it needs a buffer state in North Korea, the U.S. will have difficulty in getting the Chinese to crack down on North Korea’s bad behavior, long term regional experts say. They suggest the U.S. could benefit by bringing China closer, though. 

That is easier said than done, given some of China’s ideas for containing the North. Earlier this month, the U.S. rejected a Chinese proposal to pitch North Korea on halting its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for stopping major U.S. and South Korean military exercises. The very existence of any proposal from China was taken as a positive sign by regional experts, though. 

The U.S. also made an effort to bolster relations with South Korea recently with the ongoing deployment of the THAAD missile defense system and the permanent stationing of a new unmanned Gray Eagle attack drone system in South Korea at Kunsan Air Base. But Tillerson is also hitting the ground just a week after the ouster of the country’s president. He will not meet with any potential presidential candidates on this trip.
 
Japan’s Shinzo Abe was the first world leader to visit with Trump at Mar a Lago. Tillerson will merely be doing a little “garden tending,” as the Japanese put it, although he will also be holding the first news conference of his tenure in Tokyo.