Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Reuters, Joshua Roberts

As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Japan today, all eyes are focused on North Korea. He is likely to prioritize the threats posed by the rogue state as he meets with officials in Japan, South Korea, and then China. Unfortunately for Tillerson, the regional security situation is even more fraught than usual. When he arrives in South Korea he will be greeted by an acting government that will likely soon be out of office. He has no plans to meet with liberal opposition figures, reports Reuters, who will more-than-likely take office after elections. Not only would any agreements made with the current government risk not holding water with the next, there is widespread opposition among the liberal voting base to the THAAD missile defense system strategically important to the US. The US not only risks not making progress on this trip, but may actually lay the ground work for losing ground as they are obliged to meet leaders in Korea with no political power.

Then on to China. How will Tillerson press China on North Korea? The likely prerequisite for any commitment on the part of China to further cooperate on North Korea will be the removal of the THAAD missile defense system from South Korea. China has staked their negotiating position with an insistence that there is nothing they can do to persuade North Korea to ratchet down their nuclear buildup. Add to that their insistence that THAAD is not useful to defend against short-range projectiles from North Korea, and is purely directed at neutralizing Chinese capabilities and gathering intelligence with sophisticated radar, and you have little room for negotiating, lest the US wants to remove THAAD. All in all Tillerson is at a tremendous disadvantage compared to previous US diplomats, who made little progress on the issue, and has received little support from a White House that seems determined to diminish the State Department’s role. Godspeed Mr Tillerson. You will need all the good fortune you can get.

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