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Sejong Commentary

State Secretary Rex Tillerson’s Dismissal and DPRK-U.S. Talks
2018.03.14  Wednesday
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Jee-Kwang Park

State Secretary Rex Tillerson’s Dismissal and DPRK-U.S. Talks


No. 2018-18 (March 14, 2018)

Park Jee Kwang (Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute)


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was abruptly dismissed. Along with Special Representative Joseph Yun’s resignation, this comes as a bad news for South Korea. And Trump announced this news to the world in his style, via Twitter.

Having high hopes for the DPRK-U.S. talks in the future, the South Korean government will receive Tillerson’s discharge unenthusiastically. CIA Director Mike Pompeo being the successor, who is at the same wavelength with Trump, also acts as a burden to the South Korean government.

Moreover, as Tillerson’s sacking was unexpected and appears to be related to the forthcoming DPRK-U.S. talks, we should analyze what the Tillerson’s firing means to the North Korean nuclear issue and the political landscape of the Korean Peninsula.

Once the DPRK-U.S. talks kick-start, the state secretary has to spearhead the talks. It is reported that Tillerson and Trump had different views on the aim and procedure of the talks with North Korea.

President Trump perceives North Korea’s offer of a dialogue as a triumph for his policy of maximum pressure. Therefore, he views the talks with North Korea as simply a means to pile pressure on North Korea and he is unwilling to pay in return such as lifting sanctions before North Korea’s abolition of nuclear weapons could be verified. On the contrary, Tillerson is told to have supported a more flexible response depending on North Korea’s behavior.

Hence, the replacement of the state secretary from Tillerson to Pompeo implies that the U.S. will probably take a high-handed approach rather than a conciliatory one.

If President Trump thinks of the dialogue with North Korea as such, the Moon Jae-in administration’s plan to ease the tensions on the Korean Peninsula through U.S.-DPRK dialogue will likely to confront difficulties ahead and the prospects for the DPRK-U.S. dialogue turns gloomy.

Furthermore, President Trump proclaimed that he will resort to the military option when all diplomatic efforts fail. Fortunately, the American public does not support the use of force against North Korea. According to the polls the Sejong Institute conducted in the U.S. last December, only 10% of respondents supported the idea of U.S. military option.

However, the concerning fact is that the number of Americans supporting the military action against North Korea is twice as large as those opposed to the military action when the U.S. runs out of diplomatic options. This is a result not limited to the polls conducted by the Sejong Institute. According to the various surveys done by U.S. media outlets, while the overwhelming majority of the U.S. public objects to strike North Korea immediately, they believe that they could end up with a war against North Korea and indicated strong support to the military option when all diplomatic means have failed.

For this reason, I believe that the South Korean government should pour in all its efforts to mediate successful DPRK-U.S. talks, while avoid being overconfident of its transient achievement in the North Korean nuclear issue.

Maybe, unlike the South Korean government’s blueprint on DPRK-U.S. dialogue, the Trump administration might consider this dialogue as the last diplomatic attempt prior to a military action. When President Trump comes out empty-handed after talking with Chairperson Kim Jong-un, he might assert that North Korea did not renounce its nuclear ambitions though he strived to elicit North Korea’s denuclearization by meeting face-to-face with Kim Jong-un, thus using the talks to justify the attack on North Korea. Considering Trump’s outstanding communication skills toward the public, we cannot rule out the possibility of him manipulating the failure of DPRK-U.S. talks to shift the U.S. public opinion to endorse the strike on North Korea.

I hope that it is my concern that Seoul has had too rosy prospects on the North Korean nuclear issue after President Trump’s acceptance of DPRK-U.S. summit is an unfounded one. Nevertheless, Seoul desperately needs to understand the meaning of Tillerson’s departure and prepare for the ramifications.

Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.