Rex Tillerson caused a stir Friday on his first trip to Asia by—are you sitting down?—telling the truth about North Korea and China. The Secretary of State may be a rookie diplomat, but he can’t do any worse on North Korea than his recent predecessors in both political parties have.
“Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr. Tillerson said, referring to the Obama Administration policy of waiting for North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions or collapse. A day earlier he criticized “20 years” of a “failed approach” to the North’s nuclear ambitions.
He’s right about the failure. Going back to Bill Clinton and diplomat Robert Gallucci’s Agreed Framework in 1994, three American administrations have sought to bribe Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear program and coax China to help. They engaged in years of multi-government talks and offered cash or other concessions for North Korean promises that it never fulfilled.
President George W. Bush even took North Korea off the list of terror-sponsoring states after the North tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. And even as it came to light that Pyongyang had helped Syria build the beginnings of a nuclear program. Bush-era diplomats Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill have a lot to answer for after they persuaded President Bush to give up a pressure campaign against the North that was showing signs of success.
President Obama tried to coax the North with a similar invitation, but by then the Kim family regime had decided to build a nuclear-weapons stockpile along with the missiles to deliver them. That’s when Mr. Obama settled on the “strategic patience” doctrine that has now left the North close to achieving the ability to destroy Seoul, Tokyo or Seattle.
All of this has been dumped in the lap of the Trump Administration, which has to figure out a way to stop the North’s progress or accept a new existential threat to America’s homeland. That’s the story behind Mr. Tillerson’s language, which seems aimed at both the North and its political patrons in Beijing.
Mr. Tillerson noted that China has been punishing South Korea economically because Seoul is deploying America’s Thaad missile-defense system. “This is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat to everyone,” he said, referring to China. “We instead urge China to address the threat that makes Thaad necessary.”
He added that no U.S. tools are off the table to defend itself and its allies—implicitly including military force. And he said that if China can’t stop North Korea, then further nuclearization is possible in the region. Far from being reckless, this merely recognizes that a Pyongyang regime with nuclear-tipped missiles may drive the voting public in South Korea and Japan to support their own nuclear deterrent rather than rely as they do now on the U.S.
None of this is cheery stuff, but Mr. Tillerson’s candor is appropriate for the threat and the moment. He and President Trump are trying to persuade China that the new Administration is serious about stopping the North before it could explode a nuclear weapon over U.S. territory. China has ignored U.S. pleas in the past, so the test will be getting Beijing to believe the new Administration isn’t bluffing.
The White House has several options, such as barring Chinese companies that do business with the North from the U.S. financial system and shooting down the North’s next missile launch. The starting point is recognizing that the world needs to change its failed strategy, and good for Mr. Tillerson for saying so.