U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has again emphasized the need for a new approach to deal with the growing North Korean nuclear threat that would include more aggressive actions than those taken under former President Barack Obama’s Policy of Strategic Patience.
In South Korea Friday, he said, “Let me be very clear the Policy of Strategic Patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.”
In his first official trip to Asia this week, Tillerson – a former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience – is visiting North Korea’s key neighboring countries: Japan, South Korea and China.
President Donald Trump’s newly appointed top diplomat flew into the U.S. Osan military airbase Friday morning where he met with the commanders of the U.S. Forces in Korea before visiting the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the inter-Korean border, established by an armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
After meeting with Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Yun Byung-se, Tillerson reiterated what he said in Tokyo Thursday; that diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years have failed, and that the $1.35 billion the U.S. provided North Korea in past assistance “as encouragement” did not work to persuade the leadership in Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. provided food aid and fuel oil shipments as part of a nuclear freeze deal that fell apart after it was learned Pyongyang was violating the agreement by secretly operating a uranium enrichment program.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se voiced strong support for Tillerson’s call for more effective measures to pressure the Kim Jong Un government to dismantle its nuclear program.
“We will make North Korea feel the pain in its misguided administration, and change its calculation in the end,” said Yun.
Both leaders also defended the need for increased defensive measures, including the controversial U.S. THAAD missile defense system being deployed in South Korea that can potentially intercept a nuclear-armed ballistic missile at a high altitude.
The current ruling conservative government in Seoul has downplayed China’s strong opposition to THAAD as an unnecessary and provocative military escalation, and its concern that the system’s powerful radar could be used to monitor others in the region. Beijing is reportedly retaliating by restricting the operations of some South Korean companies, and putting limits on some imports and tourists.
The U.S. secretary of state called on China to end the informal sanctions it has imposed on South Korea to protest the THAAD deployment.
“We believe these actions are unnecessary and we believe they’re troubling. We also believe it is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat to everyone,” he said.
South Korea, however, is in the midst of dramatic political change following the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in an influence peddling scandal. A new presidential election has been scheduled for May 9 and the leading candidate is liberal Moon-Jae-in from the Democratic Party Of Korea. His party has been critical of THAAD, saying it is not worth the cost of alienating China.
In the National Assembly Friday, Woo Sang-ho – a Democratic Party leader – said, “it is impossible to make North Korea give up its nuclear and missiles (programs) with just strengthening the arms race in Northeast Asia.”
The South Korean liberal coalition, poised to take power in May, supports strong sanctions, but also believes real economic and diplomatic incentives are needed to peacefully resolve the North Korea nuclear situation.
Tillerson said he will discuss increasing the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea when he visits Beijing Saturday. The U.S., he said, will work to increase international participation in implementing the sanctions and pursue increased unilateral measures as well.
There are reports that Washington is considering increased financial penalties against Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea.
Beijing’s enforcement of sanctions is critical as it is North Korea’s largest trading partner. China recently halted all coal imports for this year, but has also indicated it is reluctant to implement harsh measures that could trigger widespread instability and the collapse of the Kim government.
North Korea’s accelerated efforts to develop the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has added a new urgency in Washington to deal with this longstanding security threat
Tillerson said all options, even military options, are being considered to deal with the North’s advancing capabilities.
“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.
Many in South Korea and Japan argue that there are no viable military options. Possible airstrikes to take out North Korean nuclear and missile sites, critics say, would fail to end the nuclear threat, as many of the country’s nuclear and missile facilities are hidden in fortified underground bunkers. And worse, analysts say, a U.S. attack could draw China and the entire region into a full-scale nuclear war that would kill millions.
South Korean and U.S. troops are currently involved in large-scale joint military exercises. About 17,000 American troops and more than 300,000 South Koreans are expected to participate in these drills, which have increased in scope and size in the last few years. Washington and Seoul say the exercises are defensive in nature, but North Korea has denounced them as rehearsals for invasion.
Pak Myong Ho, an official with the North Korean embassy in China, on Thursday denounced the joint military drills and said North Korea will continue with nuclear tests if the U.S. threat of force persists.
China recently proposed the U.S. halt joint exercises in return for North Korea’s agreement to suspend further nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. But the U.S. secretary of state rejected that proposal, saying that a freeze at this time would “leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat, not just to the region, but to American forces as well.”