Military option on table for N Korea
US patience with Pyongyang runs out Tillerson rejects negotiated freeze of nuclear arms
The Trump administration is no longer willing to exercise “strategic patience” with North Korea and is considering military options in response to a series of provocations by Pyongyang, the US secretary of state has said.
Rex Tillerson’s declaration in Seoul after a visit to the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas marked a break from the Obama administration’s policy of attempting to contain Pyongyang’s belligerence through a combination of isolation, sanctions and stepped-up military assistance to regional allies.
“Let me be clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr Tillerson said. “We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table.”
North Korea has emerged as President Donald Trump’s first foreign policy crisis after leader Kim Jong Un test fired mid-range missiles into the Sea of Japan last month and his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was murdered at Kuala Lumpurairport.
Even before Mr Trump took office, US officials said, he was warned by his predecessor Barack Obama that Mr Kim’s increasing volatility would pose an early test to the administration.
The US has hastened deployment of an anti-missile shield to South Korea in response to Pyongyang’ s actions, a move that has raised tension with Beijing, where Mr Tillers on is due to visit today.
Mr Tillerson said Washington was developing a “comprehensive set of capabilities” to deal with North Korea, declaring that talks over decades to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions had failed.
He ruled out a negotiated freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear programmes, saying conditions were not ripe to resume talks. Instead, he called for tougher sanctions, saying current UN curbs had not yet reached the“maximum level ”.
Any action threatening South Korea and the 28,500 US troops there would be met with “an appropriate response”, Mr Tillerson added. “If they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table .”
China has warned that Washington and Pyongyang are on a collision course that could lead to war, and has retaliated economically against South Korea for agreeing to deploy the US missile shield.
“We believe these actions are unnecessary and troubling,” Mr Tillerson said, calling for tougher Chinese action against Pyongyang.
In recent months the reactions of Chinese leaders to Donald Trump have veered from disbelief at the US president’s most inflammatory threats to relief that he has yet to follow through on any of them, according to officials and diplomats in Beijing.
But as China’s Communist government prepares for the first visit to Beijing by a member of Mr Trump’s cabinet — Rex Tillerson, secretary of state — relief has given way to are signed acceptance that Sin o-US relations are info ra rocky ride. China will consider itself fortunate if it can avoid an all-out trade war with Washington.
“Trump likes to make threats, so trade friction is inevitable,” said Zhu Min, a Chinese economist and former deputy managing director at the International Monetary Fund. “But he also needs to increase infrastructure investment to boost the US economy, and China is a potential partner .”
As they attempt to navigate their differences over trade, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies will also have to manage a multi-pronged crisis on the Korean peninsula, including Pyongyang’s continued pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles and Beijing’s opposition to the deployment of a US anti-missile system in South Korea. The two issues are expected to dominate Mr Tillerson’s weekend meetings with his Chinese counterpart as well as President Xi J in ping and Premier LiKe qi ang.
They will also be interested in hearing from Mr Tillerson what he meant when he said during his confirmation hearings that China should be denied access to its island fortifications in the South China Sea. “The important thing is not to cross red lines, for instance Tillerson talking about ‘denying China access’,” said Victor Gao,a former Chinese diplomat.“You can’ t do it, so don’ t say it .”
While Chinese officials publicly kept their cool after the confirmation hearing comments, and Mr Trump’s earlier tweets that he might abandon the “One China” policy by renewing official contacts with Taiwan, in private they were worried. Chen Fengying, former head of a Chinese think-tank, summed up Beijing’s disbelief when she said in January that “the world is not prepared to deal with a leader who tweets comments in the middle of the night that can shock financial markets and have a big impact on important diplomatic relationships ”.
Chinese officials were equally mystified by the ease with which Mr Trump, having threatened to end the One China policy, reaffirmed it during a February phone call with Mr Xi. Michael Green, a former Asia adviser to George W Bush, said that on everything from Taiwan to trade, “the Chinese have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it hasn’ t ”.
As they brace for the worst, they have also been trying to guess who in Mr Trump’s administration will have the most influence on its evolving China policy, from son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushn er to Mike Pence,v ice-president.
One western diplomat said he was cornered at an event recently by a previously elusive Chinese counterpart who asked: “How do you deal with Trump? Should we be talking to Pence?” China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, has been courting Mr Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump.
In Beijing, Mr Tillerson is viewed as a relatively moderate voice in the Trump administration who wants to maintain stable relations with China. But Chinese officials have also noted that his choice of deputy was vetoed by the White House, while his department’s funding was slashed in Mr Trump’s first proposed budget. His visit to Beijing is expected to be more like that of a secret envoy than a secretary of state, with no scheduled press conferences.
By contrast James Mattis, the defence secretary whose department will get a big boost from the budget, has visited Japan, South Korea and Germany, reassuring US allies that the administration will stand by them, despite Mr Trump’s earlier suggestions to the contrary.
“Tillerson is diplomatic and tactful but not a powerful member of Trump’s team ,” said S hi Y in hong, a foreign policy expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
Chinese officials have also registered the hawkish comments this week by Mr Trump’s nominee for US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, who argued that the World Trade Organisation cannot “deal effectively [with] a country like China and their industrial policy”. Additional reporting by Xinning Liu, Lucy Hornby and Demetri Sevastopulo Editorial Comment page 6
Rex Tillerson declared: ‘We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures’
In the frame: Rex Tillerson, on South Korea’s border yesterday, is photographed by a North Korean soldier