WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that the United States doesn’t want to take military action against North Korea, but that “all of the options are on the table” if a serious threat arises.
Tillerson, making the remarks from South Korea after a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, said the United States will not engage in negotiations with North Korea unless it first agrees to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.
“Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said during a news conference in Seoul with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
“We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically-prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”
The policy of strategic patience refers to the strategy of imposing crippling economic sanctions on the isolated nation with the view that it would eventually be in a state of economic disaster and be forced to negotiate. The strategy is one that the Barack Obama administration pursued.
While discussing the possibility of military conflict, Tillerson said, “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, then that option’s on the table.”
Since the beginning of 2017, North Korea has test-fired at least five ballistic missiles. The most recent test occurred in early March as the rogue nation simultaneously launched four missiles, several of which traveled more than 600 miles. The North Korean state broadcaster, Korean Central News Agency (KNCA), said following the test that the missiles intended to hit U.S. military bases in Japan.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has expressed the explicit goal of developing a missile capable of reaching the U.S. homeland and carrying a nuclear warhead.
Tillerson called on “other regional powers and all nations,” to join in pressuring North Korea to abandon its weapons program.
Hours after Tillerson’s remarks, President Donald Trump more explicitly called on China — North Korea’s closest ally — to exert pressure. “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” Trump said via Twitter.
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been "playing" the United States for years. China has done little to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017
China has protested the recent deployment of a missile defense system to South Korea, the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD), saying that it’s high-power radar system can be used to spy on the country.
Tillerson acknowledged this concern Friday, but said that China should instead focus its attention on “the threat that makes that necessary, that being the escalating threat from North Korea.” Existing United Nations sanctions could be more robustly enforced and more sanctions still could be applied, Tillerson said.
Yun expressed support for the possibility of military action against North Korea. He, however, is not expected to remain in his position for much longer, with elections for a new government to be held in early May.
“We have various policy methods available,” Yun said. “If imposing diplomatic pressure is a building, military deterrence would be one of the pillars of this building. We plan to have all relevant nations work together more closely than in the past and make sure that North Korea, feeling pain for its wrongdoings, changes its strategy.”
The frontrunner to replace impeached President Park Geun-hye is Moon Jae-in, a liberal candidate who has advocated for dialogue and warmer ties with North Korea.
Tillerson traveled to Asia without the usual State Department press corps, breaking with nearly a half century of practice. Reporters onboard the plane use the flight to talk with the Secretary and other senior level officials, who explain U.S. policy outside the demands of a news conference.
The State Department initially said Tillerson could not accommodate the press because he was taking a smaller plane than usual to save money. The Department later said that Tillerson would travel with one reporter from the web-based, right-leaning Independent Journal Review as part an effort by the administration “to include a broader representation of U.S. media.”
The State Department said reporters can travel independently to Tillerson’s destination and still cover the same events they would be allowed access to if traveling with him. His next stop is China.