There’s an Asia nuclear crisis going on, and the US still doesn’t have ambassadors in China, South Korea or Japan

  • North Korea’s nuclear threat is a priority for the Trump administration.
  • But the U.S. has not filled key diplomatic positions in the region, including allied nations.
  • Analysts say the lack of personnel makes it impossible for the U.S. to act.

2 Hours Ago

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA).

KCNA | Reuters
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

The United States has failed to put in place enough senior diplomats to tackle the North Korean nuclear threat and trade issues in East Asia, international policy experts told an audience this week.

“You’d think we’re going into a crisis with North Korea, and there’s no ambassador in Seoul, in Tokyo, in Beijing or an assistant secretary for East Asia. You wonder, beyond the tweets and what the White House says, how actually the work of the government is going to get done,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan under Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

The U.S. State Department website says that those major ambassadorships are “vacant” — as are the top U.S. diplomatic posts to India and Australia — even as smaller countries such as the Philippines have ambassadors in place.

In a statement to CNBC, the State Department pointed out that it has officials “serving in acting capacities” in those countries. The department deferred to the White House on senior nomination questions.

The White House did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

“You worry that even if things are calm, you’re just one step away from a very big crisis,” Nasr said. He was speaking Wednesday evening at the Asia Society in New York.

“You cannot take on these challenges without having a government where you have people in place. It’s not possible.”-Thomas Donilon, former U.S. national security advisor

President Donald Trump has rocked longstanding U.S. policy in Asia, leaving allies in the region less certain about their relationship with the United States, while China takes advantage of the vacuum to grow as a regional power and take over as the arbiter of international standards. Against that backdrop, North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un has threatened various countries with nuclear attack.

“You cannot take on these challenges without having a government where you have people in place. It’s not possible,” Thomas Donilon, former U.S. national security advisor, said at the same event. He led U.S. efforts to impose existing sanctions on Iran.

“It is not possible to do that without dozens and dozens of diplomats around the world who are working every day on these things,” Donilon said. “So the staffing is a really big issue.”

The U.S. Senate confirmed Robert Lighthizer as U.S. trade representative late Thursday, more than 100 days after Trump’s inauguration.

Moon Jae-in takes 41.1% of the vote in S Korea election  Wednesday, 10 May 2017 | 1:23 AM ET | 02:06

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad awaits his confirmation as ambassador to China and only got out of the GOP-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. Members of the committee have blamed incomplete paperwork for the delays.

Private equity executive William Hagerty wasn’t nominated as ambassador to Japan until March.

No record of a nominee for ambassador to South Korea appears on the White House website.

Of 557 key executive branch positions that must be confirmed by the Senate, the Trump administration has failed to produce a nominee for 460, according to a running tally from the Washington Post.

Of about 200 ambassadorial posts, 77 remain “vacant,” according to a May 10 document from the State Department.

Tillerson ‘bears some responsibility’

Analysts pointed out that the only confirmed State Department official is Secretary Rex Tillerson himself.

Tillerson “definitely bears some responsibility” for not nominating people for some key posts, Nasr told CNBC on Friday. He said he could not think of a previous case in which so many important posts had not been filled by the first few months of a new president.

“It does not signify competence or seriousness,” Nasr said.

To be sure, the heads of state themselves still dictate the tone of international relations overall.

“Ambassadors in Asia haven’t played a [major] role for quite some time,” Charles Freeman III, managing director at consulting firm Bower Group Asia and former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs.

Bower said the National Security Council and White House have played a greater role in Asian affairs, though he noted that good leadership at embassies is necessary for continuity in foreign policy.

North Korea Warns Region Is ‘Close to Nuclear War’ Amid U.S. Drills

North Korea Warns Region Is ‘Close to Nuclear War’ Amid U.S. Drills

North Korea’s state-controlled media warned Tuesday that America’s “military provocations” risked triggering nuclear conflict — with one newspaper claiming Kim Jong Un‘s regime was “waiting for the moment it will reduce the whole of the U.S. mainland to ruins.”

The latest threat from North Korean state media came hours after the two U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers flew training drills with the South Korean and Japanese air forces in another show of strength.

Despite a flurry of recent missile tests, North Korea has not demonstrated that it’s capable of hitting the United States mainland with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.

Many experts predict the reclusive country is some way off its goal.

The North still maintains it has the technology to do so, however, and on Tuesday an anchor on North Korea’s state-controlled KRT broadcaster issued a new warning to Washington.

“Due to the U.S. military provocations that are becoming more explicit day by day, the situation in the Korean peninsula … is being driven to a point close to nuclear war,” he said, according to a translation by Reuters.

U.S. Pushing Korean Peninsula to Brink of Nuclear War, N. Korea Says 0:40

Fiery rhetoric by North Korea against the United States and its allies is not uncommon, but the latest salvo comes at a time of particularly heightened tensions following a tougher line taken by Trump and his team.

The president said last week that a “major, major conflict” conflict with North Korea was possible, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested that military action is “on the table.”

There have also been mixed messages from Trump, however, with the president telling Bloomberg News on Monday that he would be “honored” to meet the North Korean dictator. He also called Kim “a pretty smart cookie” in a CBS interview.

Image: Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Ed Jones / AFP – Getty Images

Kim is a leader who runs one of the world’s most repressive regimes, where almost all aspects of civil society are severely restricted and tens of thousands of people are enslaved in labor camps that the United Nations has likened to Nazi Germany.

America has long since sought to put pressure on North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear tests that contravene United Nations sanctions — something Kim has ramped up under his leadership.

Meanwhile, CIA Director Mike Pompeo was visiting South Korea on Tuesday as part of a three-day visit to reaffirm America’s commitment to its regional ally.

The North continually rails against military exercises involving the U.S. and the South, alleging they are a training exercise for an invasion of their territory. On Tuesday, KRT claimed the American warplanes conducted nuclear bombing drills against several major targets.

‘Reckless Action of the War Maniacs’

The U.S.-South Korea drills included an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, which Trump dispatched to the region’s waters.

An opinion piece in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Tuesday called the drills “a reckless action of the war maniacs aimed at an extremely dangerous nuclear war.”

The article was headlined: “Nuclear War Will Bring Nothing but Doom to U.S.”

Related: N. Korea Speeds Up Missile Tests to Send Message to Trump

The newspaper — which, like all North Korean media, is strictly controlled by the state — warned that the North Korean army would “make such gigantic carriers something useless,” apparently referring to their destruction.

It said America’s “vast territory is exposed to our preemptive nuclear strike” and that its army was “waiting for the moment it will reduce the whole of the U.S. mainland to ruins with its absolute weaponry of justice.”

Trump on North Korea threat: ‘Nobody’s safe’ 12:17

The newspaper added: “If the U.S. shows any slight sign of provocation, just the inter-continental ballistic rockets displayed in the April military parade will fly into the U.S. The reckless nuclear war provocation by the Trump administration will bring it nothing but the fall of the American empire.”

It also highlighted that “the U.S. mainland is the final target of [North Korea’s] strategic rockets tipped with powerful nuclear warheads.”

America’s allies weren’t spared the threatening rhetoric. The paper said that “South Korea will be submerged in a sea of fire” and “Japan will be reduced to ashes.”

Seoul, the South Korean capital, is just 25 miles from the North Korean border. Experts have warned that if America launches military action against the North it may result in a devastating, retaliatory strike against the city and its 10 million people.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry urged all sides to “lower the temperature” and “resume contact and dialogue as soon as possible.”

Geng Shuang added that Trump’s comments suggesting he would be open to meeting with Kim were a “positive signal.”

China is North Korea’s sole ally in the region and many experts see Beijing as key to solving the Korean impasse.

North Korea ‘tests ballistic missile’ amid reports Pyongyang stating war ‘imminent’
An undated file photo made available by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state news agency of North Korea, on 07 March 2017, shows four projectiles during a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) at an undisclosed location
An undated file photo made available by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state news agency of North Korea, on 07 March 2017, shows four projectiles during a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at an undisclosed location CREDIT: KCNA
  • North Korea test-fires ballistic missile
  • Trump says North Korea ‘disrespected the wishes of China’
  • Reports Pyongyang saying war ‘imminent’
  • North Korea: attempts to get rid of nuclear weapons ‘wild dream’
  • North Korea could develop a missile capable of reaching the US warns Homeland Security Secretary


North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile in the early hours of Saturday morning, reports in South Korea said, amid rising military tensions with the US.

The missile, launched from a region north of the capital, Pyongyang, appeared to have blown up a few seconds into flight, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.

US officials said the missile did not leave North Korean territory and was probably a medium-range missile known as a KN-17.

It was the second failed test of a ballistic missile this month and came amid a flurry of rhetoric from North Korea, warning of “imminent” war against the US.

“North Korea fired an unidentified missile from a site in the vicinity of Bukchang in Pyeongannam-do (South Pyeongan Province) early this morning,” Yonhap reported, quoting a statement issued by South Korea’s military. “It is estimated to have failed.”

Donald Trump, the US president, said that North Korea “disrespected the wishes of China” with the missile test.

North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!

On Friday, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, warned that failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes could lead to “catastrophic consequences”.

He called for a greater enforcement of UN sanctions against North Korea and requested the help of the rest of the world in pressuring North Korea to step back from its military threats.

North Korea’s military arsenal


China said it was not only up to Beijing to solve the North Korean problem.

“The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister said.

This image made from video of a still image broadcast in a news bulletin by North Korea's KRT on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, shows what was said to be a "Combined Fire Demonstration" held to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the North Korean army, in Wonsan, North Korea
This image made from video of a still image broadcast in a news bulletin by North Korea’s KRT on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, shows what was said to be a “Combined Fire Demonstration” held to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the North Korean army, in Wonsan, North Korea CREDIT: KRT VIA AP VIDEO

North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador responded by stating US efforts to get rid of his country’s nuclear weapons through military threats and sanctions were “a wild dream”.

Mr Trump told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

An undated photograph released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 26 April 2017 shows the combined fire demonstration of the services of the Korean People's Army in celebration of its 85th founding anniversary, at an undisclosed location in North Korea
An undated photograph released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 26 April 2017 shows the combined fire demonstration of the services of the Korean People’s Army in celebration of its 85th founding anniversary, at an undisclosed location in North Korea CREDIT: KCNA

The top US military commander in the Pacific warned earlier this week that North Korea could strike American soil.

“I don’t share your confidence that North Korea is not going to attack either South Korea, or Japan, or the United States … once they have the capability,” Admiral Harry Harris, who heads the US Pacific Command, told Congress.

He was defending the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system by the US in South Korea.

The move was “in response to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threat”, a US military statement said, amid concerns that Pyongyang was planning its sixth nuclear test since 2006.

A military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA) is seen in this handout photo by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency
A military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is seen in this handout photo by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency CREDIT: KCNA



UN Security Council united in demanding North Korea surrenders nuclear weapons

France’s U.N. ambassador says the U.N. Security Council is “mobilized” and unanimous on the need to denuclearise North Korea.

Francois Delattre said at the United Nations after North Korea’s apparently failed missile launch Saturday that while there were “nuances” on policy to be worked out among council members, there is unanimity on the need for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

France's Ambassador to the United Nations Francois Delattre 
France’s Ambassador to the United Nations Francois Delattre  CREDIT: TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP

North Korea fired the missile hours after the Security Council held a ministerial meeting on Pyongyang’s escalating weapons program. North Korean officials boycotted the meeting, which was chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Delattre says the council must be “very firm” implementing sanctions, adopting new ones if necessary and denouncing North Korea’s human rights record.


South Korea presidential front-runner says North Korea’s missile launch futile

 The front-runner in South Korea’s presidential election sees North Korea’s latest attempted missile launch on Saturday as “an exercise in futility”, his spokesman said.

“We urge again the Kim Jong Un regime to immediately stop reckless provocative acts and choose the path to cooperate with the international community including giving up its nuclear programme,” Park Kwang-on, a spokesman for Moon Jae-in, said in a statement, referring to the North Korean leader.

Moon Jae-In,

“That is a way to save itself, not a way to self-destruct,” Park said.

North Korea test-fired a missile earlier on Saturday, which disintegrated after several minutes into the flight, U.S. and South Korean officials said.

South Korea’s presidential election is on May 9.


North Korea ‘could develop a missile capable of reaching the US’ warns Homeland Security Secretary

John Kelly, the Homeland Security Secretary, has given a stark assessment of the threat posed by Pyongyang.

Previous administrations had tried and failed to persuade the North Koreans to behave more responsible, Mr Kelly he told CNN. “They tried and failed, I don’t blame them. It has fallen under this president that they will have a workable missile that can reach the United States, though not all of it.”

John Kelly, secretary of U.S. Homeland Security
John Kelly, secretary of U.S. Homeland Security CREDIT: SUSANA GONZALEZ/BLOOMBERG

The impact of such a missile would be catastrophic, he added.

Mr Kelly did not think the latest test was a response to Donald Trump’s most recent remarks.

“They are not fast enough to put a missile launch together just on what the president said last night,” he said.

“The missile technology is pretty complicated and they have some pretty good scientists, but they don’t have the people like we have or in the same numbers.”


U.S. ‘could speed up North Korea sanctions in response to missile test’

Quoting an American official,  Reuters is reporting that the  Trump administration could respond to North Korea’s latest failed missile test by speeding up its plans for new U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang, including possible measures against specific North Korean and Chinese entities.

With North Korea acting in defiance of pressure from the United States and North Korea’s main ally, China, Washington could also conduct new naval drills and deploy more ships and aircraft in the region as a show of force, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s possible that something could be sped up,” the official said of the potential for imposing a limited package of targeted sanctions on North Korea. “Something that’s ready to go could be taken from the larger package and expedited.”

The source said the ballistic missile launch was the kind of “provocation” that had been anticipated ahead of South Korea’s May 9 election, and President Donald Trump could use the test-firing to further press China to do more to rein in North Korea.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the missile fired from a region north of Pyongyang was probably a medium-range missile known as a KN-17 and appears to have broken up within minutes of taking off.

Should North Korea test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile as it has threatened, Washington would consider it a more dangerous milestone, the administration official told Reuters, suggesting it would draw a much tougher U.S. response.

The Trump administration is especially worried about Pyongyang’s work to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States. Washington is also watching closely for the possibility of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.


Japan protests North Korea’s latest missile test

Japan has protested the latest missile launch by North Korea.

Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the ballistic missile firing would be “a clear violation of UN security council resolutions.”

He added that Japan “cannot accept repeated provocation by North Korea” and had “lodged a strong protest against North Korea.”

Japan has become increasingly concerned in recent weeks about the possibility of a North Korean missile attack targeting Japan or US forces stationed in Japan.


Trump: North Korea ‘disrespected China’

Donald Trump has said that North Korea “disrespected the wishes of China” with the missile test.


Ballistic missile did not leave N.Korean territory -U.S. military

The US military has said it tracked the ballistic missile launch but the missile did not leave North Korean territory and did not pose a threat to North America.

Commander Dave Benham, a spokesman for US Pacific Command, said the missile launch took place at 10:33 a.m. Hawaii time (2033 GMT) from near the Pukchang airfield.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the missile was probably a medium-range missile known as a KN-17 and appears to have broken up within minutes of taking off.


‘Fiery destruction of the White House’

North Korea video promises fiery destruction for the White House




North Korea’s nuclear history



US official says North Korean test was likely of a medium-range ballistic missile

US official says North Korean test was likely of a medium-range ballistic missile; it broke up minutes after launch, AP reports.


Missile test ‘appears to have failed’

Yonhap news agency said the missile appeared to have blown up a few seconds into flight.

US President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview on Thursday a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Trump praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping for “trying very hard” to rein in Pyongyang.


‘Unidentified missile’ fired by North Korea

“North Korea fired an unidentified missile from a site in the vicinity of Bukchang in Pyeongannam-do (South Pyeongan Province) early this morning,” Yonhap reported, quoting a statement issued by South Korea’s military.


‘We have to bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table’

Mark Warner, a Democrat senator and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, has told CNN;

“This is where we have got when we have two bellicose, belligerent leaders, both ratcheting up the rhetoric. I believe Japan, South Korea and the allies have to stand up strong. We have to bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table, not to his knees.”


‘Catastrophic consequences’

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned earlier on Friday that failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could lead to ‘catastrophic consequences,’ while China and Russia rebuked Washington’s threat of military force, Reuters reports.

The showdown in a meeting of the UN Security Council on North Korea highlighted the diplomatic challenges of resolving tensions over Pyongyang, with the Trump administration aggressively pressing Beijing to rein in its ally, and China and Russia pushing back against Washington’s rhetoric.

Rex Tillerson: US looking to China for help with North Korea


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the 15-member council it was not only up to China to solve the North Korean problem.

“The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” Wang told the council in blunt remarks that Tillerson later rebuffed.


North Korea test fires ballistic missile, according to reports

Hello and welcome to our live coverage as North Korea test-fires a ballistic missile from a region north of its capital, Pyongyang, Yonhap news agency reported citing South Korea’s military.

There were no immediate details about the missile or its flight, Yonhap said.

Trump on North Korea: Tactic? ‘Madman Theory’? Or Just Mixed Messages?


President Trump’s negotiating strategy has often involved the taking of an extreme position, in the hope that the other actor in a test of wills will be thrown off enough to move in his direction.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — It was only a few hours after his secretary of state cracked open the door on Thursday to negotiating with the North Koreans that President Trump stepped in with exactly the kind of martial-sounding threats against the country that the White House, until now, had carefully avoided.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” he said to Reuters during a round of his 100-days-in-office commemorations. “Absolutely.”

Viewed in the most charitable light, Mr. Trump was, in his own nondiplomatic way, building pressure to force the North into a freeze of its nuclear and missile tests, the first step toward resuming the kind of negotiations that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson had spoken of earlier in the day. Or, perhaps, he was engaging in a bit of the “madman theory” that he and many of his aides reportedly admire about President Richard M. Nixon, who tried to convince Ho Chi Minh, the wily North Vietnamese leader, that he might be crazy enough to drop “the bomb” if they could not find a way to end the Vietnam War.

But the most likely explanation is that Mr. Trump, who until now has largely avoided taking the bait that the North Korean propaganda machine churns out with its own warnings of imminent war, simply reverted to an old habit: sounding as tough as the other guy. The problem is that it clashes with the message his administration has been sending out in recent days that no pre-emptive strikes are planned and that there is plenty of time and space for diplomacy. Mr. Trump’s aides talk of an “integrated strategy” of escalating military and economic pressure to force diplomatic engagement.

The objective, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., who heads the United States Pacific Command, told Congress this week, is to “bring Kim Jong-un to his senses, not to his knees,” a reference to the insecure if absolute leader of North Korea.

That also seemed to be Mr. Tillerson’s message. In an interview with NPR, he tried to sound reassuring, saying: “We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.” He even raised at least the possibility of direct talks.

Mr. Trump missed an opportunity to reinforce that effort to reassure the North Koreans that the United States is not looking to topple their leader. Instead, his message could be taken as the opposite.

Mr. Trump’s negotiating strategy has often involved the taking of an extreme position, hoping that the other actor in a test of wills will be thrown off enough to move in his direction. That is one thing when it means threatening to pull out of Nafta, the gambit Mr. Trump floated, then retreated from, this week. But it can be a far riskier bet when exchanging signals with Mr. Kim, who has survived so far — like his father and grandfather before him — by employing a similar playbook of extreme rhetoric, often followed by acts of violence.

So far, Mr. Trump has directed one operation to bolster his claim that he is perfectly willing to use force in an unpredictable manner: his decision a month ago to conduct an intensive, brief attack on a Syrian air base where American intelligence agencies say the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack on its own people. It had no follow-up.

But for North Korea, lashing out to send a message is an art form, practiced since the days when Mr. Kim’s grandfather ordered the seizure of an American ship, the Pueblo, in 1968, followed by the shooting down of an American reconnaissance plane, killing 31. Then, seven years ago, came the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel — most likely by a North Korean torpedo, though the country denies it — that took 46 lives.

The young Mr. Kim, who took over the following year after his father’s death, has worked to burnish his own madman credentials. He is believed to have ordered the cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that wiped out the company’s computer systems in 2014 and the killing of his half brother in Malaysia this year, part of a sustained campaign to eliminate potential rivals. More than a few have been executed with antiaircraft guns, just to make a point.

The fear is that small acts and mutual threats of war can lead to miscalculation. Only hours before Mr. Trump spoke, the North released a propaganda video showing the White House shattering apart in what looked like a nuclear blast. No one takes those videos seriously, but they indicate a state of mind in which every action has to have a reaction.

“That’s what I worry about the most,” Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said recently. “Rapid escalation.”

Past presidents have recognized the risk. It is notable that the shooting down of the American spy plane in Nixon’s time, one of the largest losses of Americans in a Cold War military attack, did not result in retaliation, in part for fear of rekindling the Korean War.

Behind the scenes in the Trump White House, officials are just beginning to debate how to react to potential North Korean acts. One of the most active debates is over what to do if the North attempts a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Should it be destroyed on the launchpad? Should the United States try to intercept it in midflight, with all the risks of escalation if that succeeds, and the risks of embarrassment if it fails?

Such questions are still being debated, as recently as during a meeting at the White House on Thursday, just as Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson were sending what sounded like uncoordinated messages.

Transcript: NPR Interviews Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the George C. Marshall room at the State Department on Thursday.

Ariel Zambelich/NPR

In his first interview with NPR, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep.

Steve Inskeep: I want to begin with North Korea. We heard when you said, “the era of strategic patience is over,” so we know what your policy is not. Is there a word or phrase you can give us to say what your approach to North Korea is?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: Yes, our approach to North Korea is to have them change their posture towards any future talks.

And I think when we say the era of strategic patience is over — in the past I think we have always negotiated our way to the negotiating table. Now when they act up, we would negotiate our way to get them to come to the table, and then decide what we’re going to give them to have them behave. We don’t have the running room left to do that now, given how far advanced their program has become. So this is an approach that is to put pressure on them through implementation of all the sanctions, as well as other diplomatic pressures, and calling on others to cause them to change their view of what will really allow them to achieve the security that they say they seek.

Do you intend to direct talks with North Korea? Is that your goal?

Obviously, that would be the way we would like to solve this. But North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the right agenda — and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.

Well help me understand what success is from your point of view. What does the goal have to be?

Well our goal is the same as that of China, which is a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

No nuclear weapons for North Korea?

A denuclearized Korean Peninsula. It’s very clear: That’s China’s stated policy, it has been our stated policy, it’s been the stated policy of our allies in the region. And I would quickly add, you know, we did our part — we took our nuclear weapons out of the Korean Peninsula. It’s time for North Korea to take their weapons out as well.

Is that a realistic goal?

It is our goal. It is our only goal.

And would you go so far as to say that is an absolute goal? I’m thinking of the way that President Obama during the nuclear negotiations with Iran said Iran will not have a nuclear weapon, period. Are you prepared to say: North Korea will not end this process with nuclear weapons, period?

We must have a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. That is our goal, pure and simple.

Nothing less?

Nothing less.

Regardless of the methods?

I’m not sure what you mean when you say regardless of the methods…


China warns situation with North Korea at ‘critical point’

By Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton | UNITED NATIONS

China warned on Friday that the situation with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs is at a “critical point” and said dialogue and negotiations are the only “practical” way to end tensions.

Speaking at the United Nations before a Security Council meeting on North Korea – to be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged that Beijing would fully implement all U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

“Due to the recent efforts by the DPRK (North Korea) to accelerate missile and nuclear development, China agrees to the international community to step up efforts of non-proliferation,” Wang told reporters.

“A peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and negotiations represents the only right choice that is practical and viable,” he said.

Tillerson, in his first visit to the United Nations as secretary of state, will press the 15-member Security Council to further isolate North Korea by swiftly imposing stronger sanctions in the event of further provocations by Pyongyang, including a long-range missile launch or sixth nuclear test.

The ministerial meeting comes after U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters on Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The United States, which is president of the Security Council for April, urged members – in a note outlining Friday’s meeting – to “show their resolve to respond to further provocations with significant new measures.”

Diplomats say further provocations are considered a nuclear test or long-range missile launch.

The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials told Reuters earlier this month.

The United States has been urging China to use its status as North Korea’s only major ally to help rein in Pyongyang.

Washington is also stepping up pressure that began under the Obama administration against Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, which have diplomatic and financial links to Pyongyang, to downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with North Korea.


U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to brief the Security Council at Friday’s meeting, which will include foreign ministers from China, Britain and Japan. Tillerson met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts before the council meeting and will meet Wang afterwards.

China has long promoted dialogue to resolve the “Korean nuclear issue,” and the United States says it is open to talks, but the two countries disagree over the sequence.

“The U.S. require (North Korea) to take some actual action to curtail their nuclear program, which could then be followed by talks, and the Chinese position is talks first, action later,” said a senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since 2006, North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions aimed at impeding the development of its nuclear and missile programs. The council has strengthened sanctions following each of North Korea’s five nuclear tests.

Traditionally the United States and China have negotiated new sanctions before involving remaining council members. It took the council three months to act after the last nuclear test, in September, and diplomats said Washington appears to be laying the groundwork with China for faster negotiations next time.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Sanders warns of possible nuclear war with North Korea


President Trump’s Thursday assertion that a “major, major conflict” between the U.S. and North is possible is essentially a warning of a potential nuclear war, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Friday.

“When you’re talking about a ‘major, major conflict,’ what you’re talking about is a nuclear war,” Sanders said on CBS’s “This Morning.” “Obviously, I think the goal now is to work as strongly as we can with China.”

“China is, I think, receives about 80 percent of the exports from North Korea. They are in a position to tighten the screws on North Korea and tell them they cannot continue their missile program or their nuclear program.”

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Trump warned of the possibility of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, saying that, while his administration would pursue a peaceful solution to ongoing tensions with the country, it would be “very difficult.”

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump said.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he added.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have escalated in recent weeks amid increased concerns over the reclusive regime’s advancing weapons program. Earlier this month, the U.S. announced that it would send a Navy strike group into the West Pacific near the Korean Peninsula in an attempt to deter Pyongyang’s aggression.

But North Korea quickly condemned the move as an aggression and threatened a nuclear strike if provoked. The ongoing back and forth between the U.S. and North Korea has put allies in the region on high alert.

THE ONION: A Timeline Of U.S.–North Korean Relations


As tensions mount between North Korea and American allies, The Onion looks back at key moments in the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.

  • 1948

    God decides to come to Earth in the form of 36-year-old Korean man Kim Il-sung

  • 1950

    The outbreak of the Korean War marks the high point of U.S.–North Korean relations

  • 1973

    Henry Blake’s plane is shot down, sending Hawkeye and the 4077th into drunken despair

  • June 1994

    Kim Il-sung meets with one-term U.S. Supreme Leader Jimmy Carter

  • July 1994

    After considering a record number of talented sons, Kim Il-sung ultimately designates Kim Jong-il as his successor

  • 1996

    Three million patriotic North Koreans agree to starve to death for the good of their country

  • 2003

    North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, indicating that the country has developed the capabilities to lie

  • 2008

    George W. Bush removes North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list after officials agree to focus solely on acts of domestic terror

  • 2013

    Dennis Rodman severely botches assassination attempt of top North Korean officials

  • 2016

    North Korean missile successfully takes out U.S. allied mackerel in Sea of Japan

  • November 2016

    After years of watching North Korea with jealousy, the U.S. electorate decide to try out an erratic strongman with nuclear capabilities for themselves


The batteries of North Korean artillery lie just on the other side of the divided peninsula’s demilitarized zone. There are thousands of them—some hidden, others out in the open. Artillery shells are stored in an elaborate network of tunnels; and though much of the weaponry and ammunition is old, U.S. forces stationed in South Korea have no doubt they would be effective.

Less than 40 miles to the south is the sprawling city of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with a metropolitan area of 24 million inhabitants. Ever since a cease-fire ended hostilities between North and South Korea in 1953, the residents of Seoul have lived with the knowledge that a war with their brethren in the north could break out again; it is a notion not often acknowledged but embedded in their DNA. And now, again, the fraught Korean Peninsula seems a single miscalculation away from calamity. Since his election, President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have escalated their rhetoric about the North, insisting that U.S. patience with North Korea’s nuclear and missile program has run out. Pyongyang has responded with rhetoric even more bellicose than usual. On April 20, a state-owned newspaper threatened that Pyongyang would deliver a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike’’ against the U.S., whose forces were in the midst of massive military exercises with their South Korean ally.

No one in Seoul is heading for the bomb shelters yet. Pragmatism, and an abiding assumption that nothing terribly bad will actually happen, prevails. “No matter how much tensions increase, we just go about our lives,” says Park Chung Hee, a 40-year-old businessman whose grandfather was killed in the Korean War. “What else can we do?” But everyone living on the peninsula knows that those North Korean artillery batteries are there to pummel Seoul if another war breaks out. And that if it does, Seoul will get hit, and hit hard. The amount of time from the instant a shell is fired to impact in the South Korean capital? Just 45 seconds.

U.S. alarm about North Korea has spiked for two main reasons: The first is the aggressive missile-testing regimen Pyongyang has carried out under Kim Jong Un. During his four-year reign, Pyongyang has already test-fired 66 missiles, more than twice as many as his father Kim Jong Il did during his 17 years in office. Kim’s regime has gradually increased the range of its missiles. Combine that with the North’s efforts to miniaturize its nuclear arsenal, so that its 10 to 16 bombs can fit onto a warhead, “and you have two streams coming together—range and miniaturization—that you don’t want to cross,” says retired Admiral James Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School for diplomacy at Tufts University.

An underwater test-firing of a strategic submarine ballistic missile is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 24, 2016.KCNA/REUTERS

Some U.S. commanders fear the North can already put a nuclear warhead on a missile. Admiral Bill Gortney, head of the North American Aerospace Command, told Congress two years ago that he believes Pyongyang can use a medium-range missile to deliver a nuclear payload, meaning it can hit South Korea or Japan. The consensus intelligence estimate is that the North is now 18 to 36 months away from sticking a nuke on a missile that can reach Los Angeles. All that explains why from both current and former military officials, there has been increasing talk of pre-emption. In November 2016, General Walter Sharp, former commander of U.S. Forces Korea, stated that if North Korea puts a long-range missile on a launch pad, and the U.S. is unsure of its payload, Washington should order a pre-emptive attack to destroy that missile.

But the grim reality is that a pre-emptive strike, against North Korean missiles or nuclear facilities—or both—could well mean war. Should the day come when President Trump believes he needs to order a pre-emptive strike against targets in North Korea to eliminate a direct threat, the U.S will not be able to take out all of the North Korean artillery front loaded near the border. “Not,” says former National Security Council staffer Victor Cha, “without using tactical nuclear weapons,” which is not something the U.S. would consider, given that Seoul is right down the road. A U.S. strike, simply put, could well trigger the second Korean War.

What would another armed conflict on the peninsula look like? During the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, some 2.7 million Koreans died, along with 33,000 Americans and 800,000 Chinese. In any pre-emption scenario now, the U.S. would try keep the strike limited to the task at hand; at the same time Washington would signal in any way it could—probably via the North’s ally in Beijing–that it did not seek a wider war.

For the past two years, the U.S. and South Korea have been practicing pre-emption exercises. In 2015, they adopted a new war plan, OPLAN 5015, which includes attacks on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities, as well as “decapitation attacks” against Kim Jong Un and the rest of the North Korean leadership.

South Korea also developed its own pre-emptive attack plans, and has acquired, U.S. and Korean officials say, weapons capable of destroying some of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. Seoul has also built an elaborate defense system, which includes the recent delivery of the U.S. terminal high altitude area defense system, which shoots down incoming missiles in the final phase of their descent.

The U.S. does not want to have to pre-empt, of course. As Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on April 16, every option “short of war” is on the table in order to dissuade the North from deploying nukes on long-range missiles. “No one is looking for a fight here,” insists another Trump adviser not authorized to speak about this matter on the record.

A cutout of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set alight during an anti-North Korean rally in Seoul, South Korea, on August 21, 2015.KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS

Whether it does will come down to how Kim reacts to the pressure now being put on him from the West. The U.S. knows relatively little about the young man’s psyche and stability, but what it does know isn’t encouraging…[sounds like Trump]…


America Can’t Do Much About North Korea

When asked by the Financial Times on April 2 about working with China to reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea, President Donald Trump replied: “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” Quite how this would be done, the president declined to divulge.

In the weeks that followed, the hostile standoff in Northeast Asia heated up. As a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier sped towards the Korean peninsula, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un celebrated the “Day of the Sun” (on Easter Sunday) by standing on a platform for hours reviewing a parade of long-range missiles, scuds, and other  hardware. The launch of a ballistic missile on that same morning, however, ended in failure, as the weapon blew up as soon as it took off.

The world is slowly adjusting to Trump’s bluster. Often, he appears not to know what he is talking about. It may well be that a word in his ear from a U.S. admiral, or Chinese President Xi Jinping, or his son-in-law Jared Kushner, the real-estate heir put in charge of world affairs, could soften his bellicose tone. But words or tweets, however hasty or ill-conceived, coming from the White House, do matter. The last thing needed in the fraught situation in Northeast Asia, where military action could spiral into catastrophe, is more macho posturing. (Enough such bluster is already blowing in from Pyongyang: In a recent set of photographs, Kim Jong Un, dressed to resemble his grandfather Kim Il Sung, stands in front of nuclear warheads and threatens to unleash “pre-emptive nuclear strikes” against Japan or even the United States.)

America doesn’t know exactly what North Korea’s nuclear capability is, but it is likely sufficient to kill millions of South Koreans or Japanese. That North Korea would be smashed in retaliation is no consolation. The fact is that there is nothing much America can do about Kim’s attempts to develop nuclear-tipped missiles, especially without China’s support. Even Trump, his brilliance notwithstanding, must realize that some problems just cannot be “solved.”

The litany of futile diplomatic overtures to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions reads like a history of failure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton promised aid to North Korea in exchange for a promise to freeze its nuclear program. In 2002, it became clear that the North Koreans had reneged on the deal. The thing is that Kim will not give up his nuclear arsenal, for it is all he has got. Without the bomb, North Korea would be no more than a small, impoverished dictatorship. With nuclear missiles, it can behave as a major power, or more importantly, hold other major powers at bay.

Clinton also once considered bombing North Korean nuclear installations, but, in the end, considered the risk too high. It would be even higher now. Not only are such installations now more dispersed throughout the country, making a clean hit very difficult, but the “collateral damage” inflicted by a cornered Northern regime would be horrendous: Seoul is a mere 35 miles from the North Korean border.

Empty threats from Washington are not just ineffectual; they play into the Korean dictator’s hands. Whether most North Koreans really worship the Kim dynasty as much as they seem to is hard to know, since most of “these gestures of idolatry” are coerced. But Korean nationalism can be very easily stirred up. One thing that holds North Koreans together is the fear, constantly stoked by the regime, of a wicked foreign attack.

China is the only power with any influence in North Korea, but the last thing Beijing wants is for its communist neighbor to collapse. The Kim regime may be annoying, but a united Korea filled with U.S. military bases would be worse, not to mention the potential refugee crisis on China’s borders.

Perhaps a cyber attack could disrupt the North Korean nuclear program, but it would not be enough to rid of the threat altogether. So there appears to be little choice but to live with North Korea as a nuclear power. Pressing the Chinese to force their ally to give up its nuclear arms is useless. The best that can be hoped for is that China makes sure the North Koreans don’t actually use them.

Cooperating with China in this matter should not be so difficult, for the dirty secret in Northeast Asia is that everyone would really prefer to maintain the status quo. South Koreans tell themselves that unification of the motherland is their highest goal, but not at any price. It would be wonderful, of course, if a bloodless revolution could unite the two Koreas in a peaceful liberal democracy, as happened in Germany.

But it is impossible to see how this could happen—North Korea is no East Germany. There is no Gorbachev to keep violence in check. And it was hard enough for the West Germans to absorb their former Communist compatriots. The South Koreans could certainly not afford to do so. In the unlikely event of a peaceful unification, the Americans and Japanese would probably be stuck footing much of the bill.

Since even President Trump, once the situation has been explained to him, would probably be unwilling to risk a devastating war to force a change in the status quo, a nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay. This is dangerous. Everything must be done to stop the North Koreans from selling their weapons abroad. For this reason alone, Chinese cooperation is essential.

So the situation is bad. But the world will have to live with it. Unfortunately, so do the people unlucky enough to have been born in North Korea. Living under a brutal dictatorship is a terrible fate. But even that is better than dying in a nuclear war.