On the morning of April 5 in Asia, officials in South Korea and the US discovered that North Korea had launched yet another projectile missile towards Japan. But the Trump administration doesn’t have much to say about it.
In response to the news, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson issued a remarkably brief statement—”no comment”
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
A “no comment” remark typically follows when someone faces a question on an issue that they either don’t want to answer, or when more information is required to respond. It’s hard to imagine that the possibility of today’s launch (and the need to prep an appropriate comment) wasn’t raised by State Department officials, since North Korea often times missile launches to coincide with meetings it perceives as threatening. And North Korea’s nuclear threat to the US and East Asia will surely be top of the agenda when China’s president Xi Jinping heads to the US for a two-day meeting starting April 6 with US President Donald Trump.
More tellingly, Tillerson’s comments mark a break from diplomatic custom. Typically, every time North Korea launches a missile, someone from the White House will “harshly condemn” the act, or use similar diplomatic lingo to convey an air of seriousness. Sometimes policy proposals follow.
Last September, for example, after North Korea launched a ballistic missiles ahead of the G20 summit in China, Obama told reporters “North Korea needs to know that provocations will only invite more pressure and further deepen its isolation.” He added that the administration would “work diligently together with the most recent [United Nations] sanctions.”
These comments don’t serve much purpose beyond boilerplate filler. But in this case, Tillerson is likely going for brevity because his hands are tied this week.
Usually when discussing North Korea, Trump has a habit of attacking China. In January, for example, when Kim Jong-un boasted of the regime’s nuclear ambitions during an annual New Year address, he went on Twitter to bash Beijing.
China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
That was before Trump had officially assumed office. Now he’s been President for over two months, and is gearing up for his most important diplomatic event—a summit with Xi at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotel in Florida. The timing makes it difficult for the Trump administration to lash out at Beijing after this morning’s missile launch.
Twitter users in media and policy, unsurprisingly, mocked Tillerson for the terseness of his comments—or rather, lack thereof.
Tillerson on North Korea.— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) April 5, 2017
Sometimes, the kids just wear you out. pic.twitter.com/UNgj4xf5XD
STAFF: We should issue a statement.— Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) April 5, 2017
TILLERSON: I don't want to.
STAFF: Mr. Secretar--
TILLERSON : Don't look at me!! pic.twitter.com/GBM4ZoECcw
Tillerson's statement, basically: pic.twitter.com/26PqkSLbgn— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) April 5, 2017
The State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Tillerson’s “no comment.”