Rex Tillerson, reportedly the voice of restraint in the Trump administration, won't rule out a 'bloody nose' strike on North Korea

  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointedly left military action on the table at a multilateral meeting in Canada, saying North Korea could “trigger” a harsh response if it shunned diplomatic engagement.
  • The White House is reportedly considering a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, which Tillerson wouldn’t rule out.
  • Tillerson reportedly is one of the voices pushing against the strike, but his refusal to rule it out shows how seriously the idea is being taken.

President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy of dealing with North Korea has begun to take shape after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, thought to be a voice of restraint and diplomacy, on Tuesday refused to rule out a military strike against the country’s government.

“We have to recognise that the threat is growing, and if North Korea does not choose the pathway of engagement, discussion, negotiation, then they themselves will trigger an option,” Tillerson said after a multilateral meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

Asked directly about reports from US officials that the National Security Council was considering a small strike on North Korea, often described as a “bloody nose” attack, Tillerson refused to rule it out.

He would say only that he was “not going to comment on issues that have yet to be decided among the National Security Council or the president.”

The meeting Tillerson attended hosted officials from 20 nations that had backed South Korea in the Korean War of 1950-1953. It ended with a loose agreement to consider more sanctions on North Korea and to push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

But Tillerson, the US’s top diplomat and the man who The Wall Street Journal reported was one of the voices in Trump’s ear arguing against a strike, hardly mentioned diplomacy outside the context of it being an alternative to war.

With the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, approaching in February and continuing well into March with the Paralympics, the US has agreed to halt military drills with South Korea, and bilateral talks between the two Koreas seem to have cooled previously soaring tensions.

Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, reportedly dismissed those talks as diversions and has been seeking to upend the stalemate that has kept the US from reacting to North Korean provocations for decades.

A limited strike on North Korea, one intended to assert US resolve and power without compelling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to retaliate massively, could have tremendous strategic effect.

That the meeting in Vancouver, which focused on sanctions implementation and diplomacy, became upstaged by a dispassionate warning of war from the US’s top negotiator, may indicate how deeply the administration is considering a strike – which could also lead to wider conflict.

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