Rex Tillerson Guam stop newday_00004702.jpg
Tillerson on N. Korea: Americans can sleep well
00:47 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

This is not the first time Tillerson and other Cabinet officials have had to clarify or work around a presidential outburst

Tillerson is already familiar with presidential pronouncements complicating his work

Washington CNN  — 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unofficial job title could be translator-in-chief.

The top US diplomat found himself in a familiar role Wednesday, explaining to the world what his boss actually meant when he threatened to bring down the “fire and fury” of the US upon North Korea.

In Asia and beyond, President Donald Trump’s comment, along with his promise to unleash power “the likes of which the world has never seen,” was seen as dangerously provocative brinksmanship that heightened tensions, increased the potential for miscalculation and made diplomacy with Pyongyang even more difficult.

Tillerson offered a different take.

“I think what the President was doing was sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jung Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said, referring to the North Korean leader in remarks to reporters during a plane ride to Guam.

The stakes with North Korea – nuclear-armed, led by a ruthless, untested and all-powerful young leader intent on the ability to strike the US – make the mixed messages the US is sending uniquely dangerous, analysts and former officials say.

“The danger of the US having mixed messages is that it allows our adversaries and our allies the opportunity to read into our statements what they fear to see, or what they like to see,” said Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia.

Adversaries need to clearly understand warnings and boundaries, while allies need to feel reassured, “because otherwise deterrence could fail, and that leads to instability,” Denmark said.

Avoiding miscalculation

Tillerson said he thought “the President just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the US has an unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies. And I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”

Tillerson’s argument seems to be falling on deaf ears – perhaps because other Cabinet officials have come out with their own bristling rhetoric.

Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a statement Wednesday warning that North Korea “should cease any consideration of actions that will lead to the end of the regime and destruction of its people.”

China’s foreign ministry put out a call Wednesday for “the relevant sides” to “avoid remarks and actions that could aggravate conflicts and escalate tensions, and make a greater effort to return to the correct path of resolving the issue through dialogue and negotiations.”

The Russian ambassador to UN, Vassily Alekseevich Nebenzia, said it is “our strong wish is that the United States keeps calm and refrains from any moves that would provoke another party into actions that might be dangerous.”

This is not the first time Tillerson and other Cabinet officials have had to clarify or work around a presidential outburst, many of them delivered via Twitter, some of them at odds with stated administration policy. And it’s not the first time that officials within the Trump administration have sent conflicting signals on Pyongyang.

While it “makes perfect sense” that US officials would talk about the range of options open to them, from diplomacy and sanctions through to the potential use of military force, Denmark echoes other former officials when he says that the key “is making sure those messages are coordinated and right now the Trump administration has been very uncoordinated.”

State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said Wednesday that “the United States is on the same page. Whether it’s the White House the State Department, we’re speaking with one voice.”

But it doesn’t always sound that way and the dissonant signals have been on clear public display.

Tillerson repeatedly says that the US is interested in dialogue with North Korea, while US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared July 31 that “the time for talk is over.” Haley said that as the US declined to seek UN Security Council action after Pyongyang’s second ICBM test that month.

“The time for talk is over”

The US wouldn’t proceed, Haley said, because Pyongyang “is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity” – an apparent dismissal of UN efforts to restrain North Korea.

Five days later, the US brought new North Korea sanctions before the Security Council that passed 15-0.

Tillerson has said that Washington is not interested in regime change or in sending its military into North Korea. CIA chief Mike Pompeo has publicly suggested that removing leader Kim Jong Un is the answer to the North Korea dilemma.

A day after Tillerson spoke to reporters at the State Department about the international “peaceful pressure” campaign he was building to push North Korea into negotiations, the Pentagon conducted a previously scheduled ICBM launch, and in its announcement explicitly referred to Pyongyang’s two ICBM tests in July.

“While not a response to recent North Korean actions,” the August 2 statement said, “the test demonstrates that the United States nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, effective and ready to be able to deter, detect and defend against attacks on the United States and its allies.”

And even though Tillerson made clear in August 1 remarks to reporters that “we certainly don’t blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea,” Trump blared in a July 29 tweet that China does “NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”

Asked if perhaps the administration has assigned officials “good cop” and “bad cop” roles, Nauert sidestepped, saying, “We’ve talked about our pressure campaign … that campaign is working, it is ratcheting up the pressure every day.”

Tillerson is already familiar with presidential pronouncements complicating his work.

Trump has criticized NATO while Tillerson and others reaffirmed US support for the alliance. He has taken Twitter potshots at Mexico while Tillerson was in meetings with Mexican officials meant to repair damage to the relationship inflicted by the President’s comments about the country and its people.

While Tillerson has tried evenhandedly to broker talks between Gulf nations, Trump has taken sides, sending out a tweet criticizing Qatar and putting him in league with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other nations.

Wednesday, Tillerson stressed ongoing diplomatic efforts with North Korea, alluding to Chinese and Russian efforts to talk to North Korea.

“I know they were having talks as well with the representative from North Korea,” he said, citing it as evidence of their “very good open channels of communication” with the regime. “I am hopeful they can use their influence, and I believe they do have influence with the regime to bring them to a point of dialogue, but with the right expectation of what that dialogue will entail.”

“Peaceful pressure”

And he said his “peaceful pressure” campaign is yielding results. “We have now garnered widespread international support,” Tillerson said, pointing to the August 5 Security Council resolution that targets North Korea’s primary exports, including coal, iron, lead, and seafood, along with other revenue streams, such as banks and joint ventures with foreign companies.

Haley’s office said the sanctions will slash North Korea’s annual export revenue of $3 billion by more than a third.

“The pressure is starting to show,” Tillerson said. “I think that’s why the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang is beginning to become louder and more threatening.”

That rhetoric includes a threat to strike the US territory of Guam, home to a major military base, and a vow from North Korea’s military to “turn the US mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” if it detects any sign of a US attack.

And Tillerson offered a thought on the dangers of making public threats.

Speaking about North Korea, he said, “I think whether we’ve got them backed into a corner or not is difficult to say, but diplomatically, you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”

CNN’s Elise Labott in Washington and CNN’s Will Ripley and Steven Jiang in Beijing contributed to this report.