Two decades of diplomatic efforts to end North Korea's nuclear program have failed, and it's time to come up with a different approach, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday.
The remark, made in a joint news conference in Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, strongly suggests that the new U.S. policy on North Korea will be tough and pressure-oriented, rather than engagement.
"The diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed. So we have 20 years of failed approach, and that includes a period in which the United States provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway," Tillerson said.
The assistance refers to food supplies and other aid provided since the mid-1990s, including fuel oil shipments the U.S. provided under a 1994 nuclear freeze deal that fell apart with revelations that Pyongyang secretly ran a uranium-enrichment program in breach of the agreement.
"That encouragement has been met with further development of nuclear capabilities, more missile launches, including those of the recent February 11th and March the 5th. In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required," he said.
Tillerson said China has an important role to play in pressuring the North.
"China is a major source of economic trade and activity with North Korea," he said. "We look to China to fulfill its obligations and fully implement the sanctions called for in the UN resolutions. We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking that would be helpful to bringing North Korea to a different attitude about its future need for nuclear weapons."
Tokyo is the first stop in Tillerson's three-nation trip that will take him to Seoul and Beijing later this week.
The trip came amid heightened tensions in the region in the wake of North Korea's successive ballistic missile launches in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Pyongyang has long claimed it needs nuclear and other weapons for self-defense against what it calls a "hostile" U.S. policy toward it. The North has routinely bristled at annual joint military exercises between the South and the U.S. as a rehearsal for invasion.
Tillerson said that the U.S. has no such intention.
"North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea. With this in mind, the United States calls on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and refrain from any further provocations," he said.
He also said the U.S. security commitment to South Korea and Japan is "unwavering."
Tillerson called for greater trilateral cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan so as to more effectively counter North Korean threats, and expressed support for an agreement that Seoul and Tokyo reached in late 2015 to resolve the issue of Japan's wartime sexual slavery.
"The U.S. maintains its support, though, of the agreement that has been reached between Japan and the ROK to address the issue. We encourage both sides to approach that agreement in earnest and sincere efforts to bring this to a conclusion," Tillerson said.
"It is important to the trilateral relationship between the U.S., Japan, and the ROK that we maintain a strong alliance in which there is no space between us, particularly as it comes to dealing with the threats of the DPRK. So we are supportive and we are hopeful that the parties can come to a rapid conclusion on the agreement," he said.