March 17, 2017 5:15 am JST

US to dial up pressure on North Korea under new approach

Tillerson, in Japan, says 'all options on table'

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, spoke for more than an hour Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right.

TOKYO -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear Thursday that Washington intends to ratchet up pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear and missile development programs, promising a break from what he sees as decades of failed policy to rein in the rogue state.

'Two decades of failure'

Pyongyang topped the agenda at Tillerson's meetings here with Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The secretary offered an unusually blunt critique of previous U.S. administrations' approaches in a joint news conference with Kishida.

"I think it's important to recognize that the diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed," Tillerson said. "In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required."

North Korea's nuclear program surfaced as a threat more than two decades ago, when Pyongyang announced its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1993 -- which it finally did a decade later. The following year, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton struck a deal under which Pyongyang promised to freeze nuclear development in exchange for light-water reactors from the U.S.

Washington initially took a tougher tack under Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, but later pivoted to dialogue, including removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This was followed by President Barack Obama's policy of "strategic patience," under which the U.S. waited for North Korea to step back from its nuclear program -- an approach that ending up giving Pyongyang time to continue its development. President Donald Trump's administration takes the view that more forceful pressure is needed to deter North Korea from furthering its nuclear program or launching missiles.

Tillerson discussed this shift with Kishida, as well as at a meeting with Abe that lasted more than an hour. But the secretary did not provide any details, telling reporters only that "Foreign Minister Kishida and I had a very open and candid discussion around a different approach."

A bigger stick?

The Trump administration has indicated that all options for dealing with North Korea are on the table. Washington is undertaking a policy review that covers such possibilities as military action and ousting leader Kim Jong Un, according to American media reports.

One proposal calls for the U.S. to conduct limited airstrikes against military facilities if Pyongyang announces a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. The regime change idea may resemble past actions like the 2003 invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein.

A question cropped up at Thursday's news conference about talk that the U.S. might put North Korea back on the list of terrorism sponsors. Kishida said this is a matter of legal interpretation, and thus "something to be decided by the U.S. government," but added that he and Tillerson will "keep in close contact" on the matter.

Cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will be critical to a tougher approach. Kishida said he and Tillerson reaffirmed plans for "close coordination" among the three nations and noted the "important role that China can play."

Pyongyang sought to shake up the alliance by stating that its four missile launches March 6 were a trial run for a strike against American military forces stationed in Japan. Kishida said Thursday that Tokyo and Washington plan to arrange a "two-plus-two" meeting of foreign and defense ministers soon. The two sides will likely consider ways to increase the alliance's effectiveness as a deterrent based on the results of the U.S. policy review.

Getting South Korea on board may prove tougher. Progressive candidates likely to favor dialogue with the North rather than more pressure are leading in the polls ahead of the special presidential election in May. The leading candidate is said to be leery of defense cooperation with Japan and the U.S. as well. A divergence from the Trump administration's line could provide an opening for North Korea to exploit.

(Nikkei)

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