TOKYO — The Trump administration gave its clearest signal yet that it would consider taking 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 making observable progress toward its goal of building a missile that could reach the United States mainland and China incensed over South Korea’s decision to deploy an American antimissile battery.
Tillerson’s remarks, ruling out diplomatic talks and leaving the door open to military action, will fuel fears in the region that the Trump administration is seriously considering what are euphemistically called “kinetic” options in Washington.
“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said at a news 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 turn of events, Yun appeared to suggest that South Korea would support military options.
“We 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 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,” he said.
Sanctions and diplomatic engagement so far have failed to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But American administrations have long considered military action out of the question 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.
But military threats were beginning to feel like one of the few remaining options for dealing with North Korea, said Hahm Chai-bong, the president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
“At this point, it’s almost the inevitable next step in the escalation. The only thing is that we’ve never been here before,” Hahm said. “The U.S. and South Korea have never put this much pressure on North Korea or responded in such a direct way before.”
Some lawmakers in Seoul are now pushing for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, while there is increasingly open talk in Washington of military strikes against North Korea if it tests an intercontinental ballistic missile.
It would likely come down to a question of who blinks first, Hahm said. “And we always blink first because we have so much more to lose.”
North Korea is known for its exaggerated and bellicose rhetoric, but the combination of threats and missile launches, coinciding with Chinese anger at South Korea, has raised tensions in the region to a level seldom seen in recent years.
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. As part of that policy review Tillerson, who was head of ExxonMobil until becoming secretary of state last month, is visiting Japan, South Korea and China to hear those governments’ views.
In Tokyo on 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 toward 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 options on the spectrum 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 urge the government there to use more of its leverage over North Korea.
Earlier Thursday, Tillerson went the joint security area in the Demilitarized Zone, a spot that former president Bill Clinton once famously described as “the scariest place on Earth.” North Korean soldiers in helmets stood just a few feet away from Tillerson as he stood at the line and inside the meeting hut, taking photos of the secretary throughout.
“With his visit, he was sending a message to North Korea: We are watching you closely,” said Park Cheol-hee, professor of international relations at Seoul National University.
The line was arbitrarily drawn across the peninsula almost 74 years before, at the end of the Korean War, by one of Tillerson’s predecessors as secretary of state, Dean Rusk, who a colonel in the army at the time. A reporter asked Tillerson Friday if being at the DMZ brought home the threat of North Korea, but he did not respond.
But the conundrum of dealing with North Korea has become significantly more complicated with the impeachment last week of former president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges.
Tillerson met with the acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is running the country until a snap election is held on May 9. As in his talks with foreign minister Yun, Tillerson found a readily agreeable ally.
But that could change in early May. Opinion polls give a strong lead to progressive candidate Moon Jae-in, who has vowed to steer South Korean policy toward 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 — and 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 reopening 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. (The Washington Post)