SEOUL -- By stressing the importance of a new U.S. missile shield to be deployed in South Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a message Friday to the system's critics in the South as well as a disgruntled China about Washington's commitment to the plan.
This was Tillerson's first trip to South Korea since taking the post. After arriving earlier that day at a U.S. military base in the country, he flew in a helicopter to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. The secretary then met in Seoul with Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is South Korea's prime minister and acting president, and spoke with reporters before his meeting with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
Two launchers for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system have already arrived in South Korea. Other parts are expected to be on their way, and some think the entire system will be installed soon. But Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, who has questioned the THAAD deployment, is considered the front-runner in South Korea's presidential election May 9. The future of the system remains unclear.
Tillerson and Yun voiced support for THAAD at their joint news conference, citing North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threat.
"It's my expectation that the new government in South Korea will continue to be supportive of the THAAD system, because it is directed solely at the defense of the ROK," Tillerson said, referring to the South by its official acronym.
The U.S. official also criticized China for taking punitive action over the deployment, such as by forcing South Korea's Lotte Group to shut supermarkets in China. "Its economic retaliation against South Korea is inappropriate and troubling," he said. "We ask China to refrain from such action."
Yun also stated that THAAD was meant exclusively as a response to North Korea, and that it "does not target any specific third country."
As for economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the United Nations Security Council, Tillerson called for even tougher penalties. "I don't believe we have ever fully achieved the maximum level of action that can be taken," he said.
Yun said the ultimate goal "is a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program."
China has been calling on the U.S. to engage in dialogue with North Korea. But Tillerson stressed this would not be an option unless Pyongyang first denuclearized and gave up its weapons of mass destruction. Diplomatic, security and economic measures are all on the table, he said.
The secretary also looked back to ineffective past policies by the U.S., including the $1.3 billion it has provided in assistance to Pyongyang since 1995. "Twenty years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today," Tillerson said.
"Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended," he said.
Tillerson did not rule out military action. Though a conflict is not wanted, he said, "if North Korea takes actions that [threaten] the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response."
Tillerson and Yun met for about an hour following the news conference to discuss the THAAD deployment and Pyongyang's nuclear development, among other topics.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that "North Korea is behaving very badly" and "China has done little to help."