Updated March 17, 2017 9:40 a.m. ET
SEOUL—U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that Washington wouldn’t engage in negotiations with North Korea and that a pre-emptive military strike and tougher sanctions were among the options on the table in dealing with Pyongyang.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Mr. Tillerson’s remarks to reporters in Seoul were his most direct statements on North Korea since he was sworn in as Washington’s top diplomat last month. His words hint at a harder-line approach by the Trump administration against North Korea, which is closing in on the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range ballistic missile.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Trump suggested he would consider a wide range of policies on North Korea, at one point calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a madman who had be stopped, and at another point suggesting that the two men discuss the issue over hamburgers.
After taking office, Mr. Trump launched a policy review on North Korea that is continuing. Plans for back-channel talks in New York between government representatives from North Korea and former U.S. officials were scuttled last month after the State Department withdrew visa approvals for Pyongyang’s top envoy on U.S. relations, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Tillerson, who is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping this weekend at the end of a three-nation trip through East Asia, said he plans to raise concerns with Beijing over its perceived pressuring of South Korea related to a missile-defense system.
China strongly opposes Seoul’s decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, which is aimed at defending the South against missile threats from the North. In recent weeks, many in South Korea believe Beijing has clamped down on South Korean companies doing business in China. South Korea received the first components of the Thaad system earlier this month.
Mr. Tillerson called China’s perceived actions against Thaad inappropriate and troubling. He said that China should be clamping down on the regional threat from its allies in North Korea rather than targeting South Korea.
“This is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat to everyone,” he said, referring to China. “We instead urge China to address the threat that makes Thaad necessary.”
Speaking at the same press conference, South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, described China’s actions as bullying that would be met with “clarity and resoluteness” by Washington and Seoul.
In Beijing, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said at a regular briefing on Friday that China had made efforts to promote dialogue between Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul, and declined to comment on Mr. Tillerson’s remarks ahead of his arrival in Beijing on Saturday.
With regard to sanctions, Mr. Tillerson said that there was more that the international community, including China, Russia and “a widening circle of allies,” could do to pressure North Korea.
“I don’t believe we have ever fully achieved the maximum level of action that can be taken under the U.N. Security Council resolutions,” he said. “We know other nations could take actions to alter their relationship with North Korea.”
He also dismissed the idea of negotiating with North Korea in hopes of freezing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, saying that the North’s capabilities were advanced enough that a mere freeze would still leave it with the ability to threaten the U.S.’s allies and military bases in Northeast Asia.
“We do not believe the conditions are ripe to engage in any talks at this time,” Mr. Tillerson said. “I’m not sure if we would be willing to freeze with circumstances where they exist today.”
Mr. Tillerson hailed the alliance between Washington and Seoul, calling it a linchpin of peace in the region, echoing reassurances given by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis during a visit to Seoul last month.
“Our commitment to this partnership will endure under the Trump administration,” Mr. Tillerson said. He added that South Korea’s removal of President Park Geun-hye last week wouldn’t affect the two countries’ relationship, pledging to work with the incoming government, which will take office in Seoul after an election in early May.
Mr. Tillerson’s remarks came a day after he slammed “20 years of failed approach” to North Korea during a meeting with Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, in Tokyo.
On Friday, Mr. Tillerson, who also met with South Korea’s acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Hyo-ahn, took aim at what he described as President Barack Obama’s inaction on North Korea, which he characterized as a policy of “strategic patience.”
“Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr. Tillerson said.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at email@example.com
Rex Tillerson Rejects Talks With North Korea on Nuclear Program
SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson ruled out on Friday opening any negotiation with North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs and said for the first time that the Trump administration might be forced to take pre-emptive action “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level.
Mr. Tillerson’s comments in Seoul, a day before he travels to Beijing to meet Chinese leaders, explicitly rejected any return to the bargaining table in an effort to buy time by halting North Korea’s accelerating testing program. The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said on New Year’s Day that North Korea was in the “final stage” of preparation for the first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.
The secretary of state’s comments were the Trump administration’s first public hint at the options being considered, and they made clear that none involved a negotiated settlement or waiting for the North Korean government to collapse.
“The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr. Tillerson said, a reference to the term used by the Obama administration to describe a policy of waiting out the North Koreans, while gradually ratcheting up sanctions and covert action.
Negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” he said — a step to which the North committed in 1992, and again in subsequent accords, but has always violated. “Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”
His warning on Friday about new ways to pressure the North was far more specific and martial sounding than during the first stop of his three-country tour, in Tokyo on Thursday. His inconsistency of tone may have been intended to signal a tougher line to the Chinese before he lands in Beijing on Saturday. It could also reflect an effort by Mr. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to issue the right diplomatic signals in a region where American commitment is in doubt.
Mr. Tillerson’s tougher line was echoed by President Trump on Twitter later Friday. “North Korea is behaving very badly,” he posted. “They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
Almost exactly a year ago, when Mr. Trump was still a candidate, he threatened in an interview with The New York Times to pull troops back from the Pacific region unless South Korea and Japan paid a greater share of the cost of keeping them there. During Mr. Tillerson’s stops in South Korea and Japan, there was no public talk of that demand.
On Friday afternoon, after visiting the Demilitarized Zone and peering into North Korean territory in what has become a ritual for American officials making a first visit to the South, Mr. Tillerson explicitly rejected a Chinese proposal to get the North Koreans to freeze their testing in return for the United States and South Korea suspending all annual joint military exercises, which are now underway.
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