Photographs by AP/LEE JIN-MAN
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits with Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the combined forces in South Korea, on Friday in Panmunjom.
Originally published March 18, 2017 at 03:54a.m., updated March 18, 2017 at 03:54a.m.
SEOUL, South Korea -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Friday that "all options" are being considered to counter North Korea's emerging nuclear threat, including a military strike if necessary to safeguard allies and tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the region.
The threat of a full-scale U.S. military attack comes after a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests in recent weeks has heightened tensions across northeast Asia and raised the possibility of a conflict with an adversary that now possesses nuclear arms and appears close to being able to strike U.S. territory.
The tough talk appears to be a break from previous U.S. administrations, which emphasized diplomacy, economic sanctions and covert operations, including cyberattacks, to try to reduce the danger from one of the world's most isolated dictatorships.
"Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict," Tillerson told reporters in Seoul on the second leg of his three-nation visit to Asia, his first to the region since taking office.
"We've been quite clear on that in our communications. But obviously if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that will be met with an appropriate response," he continued.
"Let me very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended," he said, referring to administration policy under President Barack Obama of trying to wait out the North Korean regime while pressing it with economic sanctions and covert actions.
He emphasized the need for maintaining economic sanctions on North Korea but also made clear that President Donald Trump's administration would not be limited to that approach.
Asked about the possibility of using military force against North Korea, he said, "We're exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table."
He also appeared to reject the idea of trying to negotiate a freeze in North Korea's weapons program, a policy that President Bill Clinton's administration tried in the mid-1990s by supplying oil and other aid to North Korea in an effort to block its nuclear development.
Since then, North Korea has violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and has been undeterred by tough international sanctions as it has built a sizable nuclear stockpile. Its most recent nuclear test, last September, was said to produce a yield larger than the nuclear bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
"At this stage, I'm not sure we would be willing to [settle on] freeze with the circumstances where they exist today, given that would leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat not just to the region but to American forces as well," Tillerson said.
More broadly, Tillerson poured cold water on the idea of resuming negotiations with Pyongyang, saying, " Twenty years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today."
"It's important that the leadership of North Korea realize that their current pathway of nuclear weapons and escalating threats will not lead to their objective of security and economic development. That pathway can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction, and only then will we be prepared to engage with them in talks," he said.
Six-nation, aid-for-disarmament talks with North Korea, which were hosted by China, have been stalled since 2009. Obama's administration had refused to resume them unless the North recommitted to the goal of denuclearization, something it has shown little interest in doing.
In a sign of the growing friction, the North Korean Embassy in Beijing invited reporters in for a rare news conference to blame the United States for risking a nuclear war. The officials also vowed to continue the North's fast-developing nuclear testing program.
For his part, President Donald Trump tweeted: "North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!"
Tillerson's remarks, standing beside his South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, came a day after he declared in Tokyo that two decades of U.S. attempts to block North Korea from developing nuclear weapons had failed and that a "different approach" was required.
Visit to DMZ
Earlier in the day, Tillerson toured the Demilitarized Zone, a heavily guarded buffer of border land between North and South Korea intended to defuse tensions after the 1953 armistice that halted fighting during the Korean War. The two nations have never signed a formal peace accord and remain in a technical state of war.
A group of North Koreans, apparently tourists, waved at reporters from across the border in the truce village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ during Tillerson's visit. A helmeted North Korean soldier, just yards away across the border, took pictures of Tillerson's back as he posed with U.S. commanders.
Tillerson ate lunch with U.S. troops there and signed a brick with chalk, a tradition for dignitaries who visit the site.
Tillerson's tour of the region comes as the U.S. military is participating in a two-month exercise with South Korean and Japanese forces, an annual exercise that North Korea routinely denounces as a prelude to war.
The Foal Eagle exercise involves fighter jets, submarines and ground forces involved in a range of complex drills. About 3,600 U.S. service members were deployed for the event, joining the 28,000 U.S. troops permanently based in South Korea.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday that the U.S. military has a number of plans in place in the event of hostile North Korean military action. He would not directly comment on the possibility of a pre-emptive U.S. attack.
"I'll let Secretary Tillerson talk for U.S. policy," Davis said. "Our job is to provide military options that give strength to foreign policy that he leads."
Tillerson's meeting in Seoul comes at a time of political upheaval in South Korea. Its president was removed from office last week amid a corruption scandal that threatens nearly a decade of conservative party rule. New elections are scheduled for May 9.
The leading candidate in the polls, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, says he wants to delay installation of a new U.S. anti-missile system, known as THAAD, which is intended to shoot down North Korean missiles.
The U.S. began moving parts of the system into South Korea last month although it is not yet operational. The missile battery is to be installed on Jeju Island, a popular destination for Chinese tourists in southern South Korea.
Chinese officials have complained to the U.S. and South Korea that the system's sophisticated radar would undermine China's own military deterrent, and have retaliated by disrupting tourism and commerce with South Korea.
"While we acknowledge China's opposition, its economic retaliation is inappropriate and troubling," Tillerson said, calling on China to end the practice. He heads to Beijing on today, where he is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Central to a U.S. review of Asian relations is China and its role in any bid to persuade North Korea to change course. China remains North Korea's most powerful ally and dominant trading partner. China recently announced it was suspending coal imports that are an important source of revenue for North Korea for the rest of the year, in adherence with U.N. sanctions.
Tillerson urged China and other countries to fully implement the sanctions.
Information for this article was contributed by Matt Stiles and Tracy Wilkinson, Jessica Meyers in Beijing and W.J. Hennigan of Tribune News Service and by Matthew Pennington and Lee Jin-man of The Associated Press.
A Section on 03/18/2017
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