Tillerson says diplomacy with North Korea has 'failed,' time for new approach
TOKYO — Diplomacy has failed and it's time to "take a different approach" to North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said here Thursday, as the North Korean embassy in China warned that American military threats were bringing the region to the brink of nuclear war.
Tillerson's comment — that 20 years of diplomacy has been unable to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons — will fuel fears in the region that military options might be on the table to deter North Korea. That could prove devastating for Seoul, where more than 20 million people live within North Korean artillery range.
And in a sign of mounting tensions, the North Korean embassy held an extraordinary news conference in Beijing to issue its warning of nuclear war while vowing to continue with its own nuclear test program as a legitimate form of self-defense.
The U.S. secretary of state, in Japan on his first major trip abroad since taking office, put North Korea and its "dangerous and unlawful" weapons programs at the top of the agenda.
"I think it's important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed," he said at the news conference with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, after their talks but before he went to see Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
His reference to 20 years of failure alluded to the 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea that would have seen Pyongyang receive aid and two proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants in return for freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
That deal collapsed in 2002 and years of stop-start efforts to reach a new deal have amounted to little, with North Korea actively pursuing nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them.
Over that time, the United States had given North Korea a total of $1.35 billion in assistance "as an encouragement to take a different pathway," Tillerson said, but it had been met with continued weapons development.
"In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required," he said. "Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach."
He declined to go into specifics about what a "different approach" might entail. The Trump administration is now conducting a review of North Korea policy and some in Washington are advocating "kinetic options" — a euphemism for military action.
Meanwhile in Beijing, the North Korean embassy summoned journalists to complain about annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which it warned could be a prelude to military action or invasion.
"The joint military exercises by the hostile forces are aimed at pre-emptive strikes against the DPRK," Minister Pak Myong-ho said, referring to the official name of his country, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"Therefore, the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula is under serious threat," he said. "Now the situation is already on the brink of nuclear war."
While strident North Korean warnings about the annual military exercises are not unusual, calling a news conference in a third country to drive the message home was an dramatic step.
Last week, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the United States and North Korea were like "two accelerating trains" on a collision course, while Premier Li Keqiang warned on Wednesday that "tension may lead to conflict."
North Korea's Pak said the exercises could "turn into real combat at any time," and said that remaining on high alert in the face of such a critical situation is "a sovereign state's legitimate right of self-defense."
As long as the United States "unceasingly threatens force at the DPRK's door step, the DPRK will consistently conduct nuclear tests," he said.
Tillerson also plans to visit South Korea and China on his trip, his itinerary taking in countries that are all trying to find ways to persuade the regime led by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to stop firing missiles and pursuing nuclear weapons.
But there are sharply different views in the region about how to achieve that goal, with China in particular unwilling to do anything that might destabilize its ally and neighbor.
In his opening remarks in Tokyo, Tillerson did also sound something of a conciliatory note. "North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea," he said.
For his part, Kishida said he had conveyed Japan's views to Tillerson for consideration during the policy review, but he didn't go into details. "Japan recognizes threats from North Korea's provocations have entered a new stage," Kishida said.
In Tokyo, some ruling party lawmakers are openly pushing for Japan to develop the capacity to preemptively strike North Korea. Kishida declined to answer an American reporter's question on whether the government is actively considering this, a move that could prove tricky given Japan's pacifist constitution.
North Korea last month tested a missile that uses solid fuel, a big leap in its technological development, then this month fired a salvo of four missiles, part of what it said was a drill to practice hitting American military bases in Japan. Three of the four missiles landed within Japan's exclusive economic zone.
Yanmei Xie, a foreign policy expert at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, said Tillerson had "a dearth of good choices" when it came to putting more pressure on Pyongyang.
"Preemptive air strikes would have little chance of destroying all of North Korea's nuclear and missile facilities," she wrote in a report. "Many are deep underground, while its latest missiles are solid-fueled and therefore more mobile and more easily hidden."
Instead, Xie predicted a combination of tighter U.S. sanctions on the regime and secondary sanctions against its commercial allies.
The United States and Japan in particular have long been urging China, North Korea's ally and economic conduit, to use its influence to punish the regime.
CNN, citing senior U.S. officials, said Tillerson will tell his counterparts in China this week that the United States is prepared to increase financial penalties against Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea.
China has imposed a ban on coal imports from North Korea, a move that — if fully implemented — would deprive the regime of a crucial stream of revenue. But many analysts doubt Beijing will uphold the ban, given the instability it could create on China's borders.
China has instead put the ball in the U.S. court, with the foreign minister suggesting a deal whereby North Korea agrees to stop testing missiles and the United States and South Korea stop joint military exercises.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier arrived in the South Korean port of Busan on Wednesday to join the drills, prompting North Korean threats of "merciless ultra-precision strikes" on it. The guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer had arrived in Busan earlier in the week.
But in a move sure to anger China as well as North Korea, the powerful X-band radar component for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system was due to arrive in South Korea on Thursday, public broadcaster KBS reported. Two THAAD launchers arrived earlier in the month.
Beijing has strongly protested the deployment of the system to South Korea, concerned that the radar will be used to keep tabs on China as well as North Korea. China has sought to make the government in Seoul rethink the deployment by ordering painful economic boycotts.
Streets in Seoul that are usually crammed with Chinese tourists were reportedly almost empty Wednesday, when a ban on tour groups from China traveling to South Korea took effect.
Tillerson will head to South Korea on Friday to meet the country's foreign minister and acting president, both remnants of the Park Geun-hye administration. Park was impeached last week, triggering snap elections in early May. A change in South Korea's government toward an administration that wants engagement with North Korea looks likely.
Then he will travel to China on Saturday. North Korea will also be at the top of the agenda, but trade will also be a key topic of discussion.
Tillerson also backed President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to his department's budget, saying that the current State budget was "simply not sustainable" and that he would "take the challenge on willingly."
Tillerson was already in Tokyo when the Trump administration unveiled its proposed budget, which would cut combined spending for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by $10.1 billion, or nearly 29 percent.
The planned cuts to the State Department reflected expectations that the United States would become involved in fewer overseas conflicts, the secretary added. The proposed budget would increase defense spending by $54 billion.
Tillerson is the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil and has no previous diplomatic experience. He has kept a low profile since assuming his new job and has not attended some meetings with foreign leaders in the Oval Office, leading to speculation that he has little influence within the Trump administration.
Tillerson did not go to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to meet staff Thursday morning, as is often customary, but instead stayed in his hotel, where he read and received briefings from embassy officials, a spokesman said.
Like his boss, Tillerson holds the media in low regard and in another break with past practice, Tillerson did not allow the press corps to travel with him to Asia, instead choosing just one journalist — from the conservative Independent Journal Review — to fly on his plane.
Thursday's news conference in Tokyo also looks to be the new secretary's only forum for speaking to the media during this trip, and even then, he took questions from only four, preselected reporters.