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North Korea Looms Over Tillerson’s Asia Trip

North Korea Looms Over Tillerson’s Asia Trip

Anthony Ruggiero
14th March 2017 - FDD Policy Brief

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Japan, South Korea, and China on Wednesday. His visit comes at a pivotal time: Early last week, North Korea simulated a missile attack on a U.S. base in Japan, and by week’s end, South Korea’s president had been impeached.

In November, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Donald Trump, and has signaled that he remains committed to building a strong relationship with the new administration. Tokyo will be eager to hear an update on the North Korea policy review that the White House reportedly announced following Pyongyang’s simulation. Japan will expect Tillerson to repeat the U.S. pledge to defend it and South Korea against any North Korean attack, and U.S. support for its dispute with Beijing over contested islands in the East China Sea. Beijing will object to these statements, but neglecting to raise them will be noticed in Tokyo.

South Korea is focused on the presidential campaign following last week’s impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Park’s government could be out of office in less than two months, creating a profound shift in Seoul’s priorities. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system – a missile-defense system to counter North Korean projectiles – may be deployed before the elections, making it difficult for a new president to remove the system. The leading contender for president supports closer North-South ties, which could lead to a rift between Seoul and Washington. Given the ongoing U.S.-South Korea military exercises occurring throughout this month and next, additional North Korean provocations are likely.

Tillerson will face his toughest test in Beijing. Washington last week rejected China’s suggestion that the U.S. and South Korea suspend joint military exercises in exchange for a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. Washington should use the over $1-billion penalty issued last week against a Chinese telecom firm as a warning to Beijing: continuing business with the Kim regime will prompt serious consequences.

Regional leaders will scrutinize Tillerson’s statements on Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas. The Trump administration has said it supports resolving those conflicts through diplomacy, but has also suggested it would take a tougher line against China.

The North Korea issue will dominate Tillerson’s Asia trip. More than anything, he must dispel any notion that the Trump administration might continue its predecessor’s disastrous policies toward the Kim regime. Although the Obama administration vowed “strategic patience” in dealing with the hermit kingdom, America’s new top diplomat must reassure Washington’s Asian allies that its patience with Pyongyang’s provocations has its limits.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and formerly a foreign policy fellow for Senator Marco Rubio and an official at the Departments of the Treasury and State. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero.


china, north-korea, south-korea, thaad, tillerson