TOKYO — The Trump administration gave its clearest signal yet that it would consider military action against North Korea, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Friday that “all options are on the table” to deter the threat from Pyongyang.
Tensions are running high in northeast Asia, with North Korea determined to advance its missile program and China incensed over South Korea’s decision to deploy an American anti-missile battery.
Tillerson’s remarks, ruling out diplomatic talks and leaving the door open to military action, will fuel fears in the region of a tendency towards what are euphemistically called “kinetic” options.
“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said at a press conference in Seoul with Yun Byung-se, the South Korean foreign minister. He was referring to the Obama administration policy of trying to wait North Korea out, hoping that sanctions would prove so crippling that Pyongyang would have no choice but to return to de-nuclearization negotiations.
“We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson said, adding that while the U.S. did not want military conflict, threats “would be met with an appropriate response.”
“If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table,” he said.
In a surprise statement, Yun appeared to suggest that South Korea would support military options.
“We will have various policy methods available,” said Yun, who is unlikely to remain in his position for much longer as elections for a new government will be held in early May. “If imposing diplomatic pressure is a building, military deterrence would be one of the pillars for this building. We plan to have all relevant nations work more closely than in the past and make sure North Korea, feeling pain for its wrongdoings, changes its strategy,” he said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said earlier this year that North Korea is working on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States’ mainland. President Trump responded in a tweet: “It won’t happen!”
But his administration, which is now conducting a review of North Korea policy, has given few clues as to how it might stop Kim in his tracks.
Tillerson, who was head of ExxonMobil until becoming secretary of state last month, is visiting Japan, South Korea and China as part of that policy review.
In Tokyo Thursday, he said that 20 years of diplomatic efforts to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions had failed. He went further in Seoul Friday, signaling that multilateral talks — with or without North Korea — were not under consideration.
“Conditions must change before there’s any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five party or six party,” Tillerson said. The six party talks had been a multilateral effort towards de-nuclearization involving the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. The group had also met without North Korea on occasion.
But the U.S. and its allies still had other options between diplomatic talks and military action for convincing Kim and his regime to give up their nuclear weapons, he said.
There were still more sanctions that could be applied, and China could put more pressure on North Korea, Tillerson said. He will head to Beijing Saturday to try to urged the government there to use more of its leverage over North Korea.
Sanctions and diplomatic engagement have failed to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But American administrations have long considered military action unfeasible because North Korea has artillery lined up on Seoul, a city of more than 20 million people that lies just 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas.
Tillerson went to the DMZ earlier Thursday, coming almost face to face with North Korean soldiers standing on the other side of the yellow line that marks the border, and met with South Korea’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is running the country following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye on corruption charges last week.
Park’s dismissal means a snap election will be held on May 9. Progressive candidate Moon Jae-in looks has a strong lead in the opinion polls and, bar some major upset, looks set to win the presidency. If that happens, he will steer South Korean policy towards North Korea in a sharply different direction from the hardline approach taken by the conservative Park government.
Moon has pledged to go to Pyongyang before he visits Washington — a sign, he has said, of his concern about the North Korea problem — but has also heralded a return to the “sunshine policy” of previous liberal governments. He has said he will resume economic engagement with North Korea, including re-opening the joint industrial complex that Park said was helping fund Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
Moon has also suggested that he would review the South Korean government’s decision to host the American anti-missile battery called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. The battery is meant to guard against the threat to South Korea from North Korea’s missiles, but Beijing has strongly protested the deployment, apparently fearing that the system’s radar would be used to peer into China.
The Chinese government is now inflicting economic pain on South Korea — banning many imports from South Korea and stopping Chinese tourist groups from traveling there — to try to convince Seoul to change its mind on missile system.
A change to a progressive government in South Korea would pose a significant challenge for the Trump administration, making the U.S. and South Korea out of step on North Korea policy.