Rex Tillerson’s incredibly odd and confusing statement on North Korea

Posted at 9:38 AM, Apr 05, 2017

North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the sea off the Korean Peninsula, the latest in a series of test firings and one that comes just days before President Donald Trump is set to huddle with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in Florida.

Here’s what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, aka the nation’s top diplomat, had to say about the latest provocation from North Korea:

“North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

That’s a total of 23 words, if you’re counting. Twenty-three words that leave you more confused when you get to the end of them than when you started. Is Tillerson trying to talk tough? Or is he refusing to give North Korea the attention he thinks they’re trying to grab in advance of the US-China meeting? Somewhere in between? Neither? Both?

The statement reads, to channel Winston Churchill, like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It’s Ernest Hemingway but for complicated and delicate matters of foreign policy. It’s, in a (hyphenated) word, a head-scratcher.

What we do know is that the Trump administration is taking an increasingly hard line to both North Korea’s ongoing efforts to develop nuclear and ballistic weapons programs and China’s willingness to constrain those efforts.

“The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table,” a senior White House official told reporters Tuesday night in a briefing with reporters ahead of Xi’s visit.

That sentiment echoes the President himself, who told the Financial Times in an interview that he was prepared to act to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions with or without China.

“China has great influence over North Korea,” Trump said in the interview. “And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t … If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”

Viewed through that lens, Tillerson’s statement may be best understood as a sort of “the time for talking is over, the time for action is here” sentiment that is in keeping with the tough talk coming from Trump.

But, Tillerson is the country’s top diplomat — the person charged with finding solutions that go beyond simple rhetoric to these thorniest of foreign policy challenges. And his statement — such as it is — offers zero guidance as to what the US response will be.

Pyongyang wants Washington’s acceptance as a nuclear power — and to be dismissed in this way will be a blow, noted CNN’s Paula Hancocks in Seoul.

And two senior US officials tell CNN’s Barbara Starr that the message shouldn’t be interpreted as provocative. Instead, they say, it’s a signal the State Department will no longer put out routine statements after every North Korean provocation or missile launch.

But vagueness in diplomacy is a dangerous thing. Words matter. Misunderstandings can cause international incidents — or worse.

How will North Korea and China interpret Tillerson’s comments? As a provocation? A dismissal? Something else entirely?

That uncertainty is the point. Tillerson is the leading edge of America foreign policy. As such, his most important job is to ensure that other countries know exactly where the US stands when a major international event — like the one in North Korea — occurs. His statement Tuesday night suggests he simply doesn’t grasp just how much words matter.