(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s admonishment of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for “wasting his time’’ in seeking negotiations with North Korea further highlighted differences within the administration on how best to get Kim Jong Un to halt his nuclear weapons program.
The president’s remarks on Twitter came a day after Tillerson acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. is “probing” directly with the rogue nation. A State Department spokeswoman said there’s no contradiction in the U.S. position.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump posted Sunday to his 39.7 million followers on Twitter, using his pejorative nickname for Kim. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
The president later referenced diplomatic efforts by former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, saying in a Twitter posting that “being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.” Kim, 33, took over the leadership of North Korea in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Trump has threatened to destroy North Korea if provoked and repeatedly said military options are on the table. Tillerson is a chief architect of an initiative that seeks to use UN Security Council sanctions to try and choke North Korea’s economy while pressing countries to stop accepting North Korean guest workers and close the regime’s diplomatic outposts.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson told reporters on Saturday after meeting Chinese officials in Beijing. “We can talk to them, we do talk to them directly, through our own channels,” adding that the U.S. has “a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a Twitter posting after Trump’s comment that while diplomatic channels are open “for now” to Kim, “they won’t be open forever.” Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond said on Twitter that Trump “just sent a clear message to NK: show up at the diplomatic table before the invitation gets cold.”
While Tillerson has said moderate things before -- in August he noted North Korea’s “restraint” and said the U.S. wanted more goodwill gestures from the regime -- his comments in Beijing appeared tailored for a Chinese audience.
One goal of Tillerson’s trip to Beijing, where he spent less than 12 hours on the ground, appeared to be pressing China, North Korea’s chief financial backer, to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
While Tillerson and Chinese leaders didn’t mention North Korea in public remarks, he raised the issue in private, said a senior State Department official who asked not to be identified because the talks were private.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has said the time for dialogue is over and she’d “have no problem kicking it to” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Among senior Cabinet officials, Tillerson’s aversion to such language is shared only by Mattis, who has said “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”
Anthony Ruggiero, who spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government as an expert in the use of targeted financial measures, said the pressure campaign is producing results and that Tillerson’s comments may have been meant to signal China that the U.S. is ready to talk if it continues.
“Direct talks are good news during this time of increasing rhetoric as the channel could be used to avoid miscalculation,” said Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
It was “remarkable” that Trump found it necessary to publicly criticize Tillerson, said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “It undermines Tillerson, and it damages America’s ability to communicate with Pyongyang in a way that reduces the risk of miscalculation,” he said.
Still, the different approaches don’t mean they have to be contradictory, said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. The verbal confrontations between the Trump and Kim may help Tillerson persuade North Korea and others to change their stances, Yang said.
“In this context, I won’t rule out an opening,” Yang said. “Beijing has certainly become more proactive in enforcing sanctions on North Korea.”