U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that all options, including military force, remain on the table in dealing with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, declaring that the so-called strategic patience with Pyongyang has ended.
Tillerson made the remarks during a press conference in Seoul before going into talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. He was in South Korea on the second leg of his three Asian country trip following a visit to Japan.
"The U.S. and our allies have repeatedly reassured North Korean leaders that we seek only peace, stability and economic prosperity for northeast Asia.... In return, North Korea detonated nuclear weapons and dramatically increased its launches of ballistic missiles to threaten America and our allies," Tillerson said.
"The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table," he added. "North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economic propitious future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction."
Strategic patience refers to a policy stance adopted by former President Barack Obama under which he refused to hold negotiations while increasing sanctions until the North shows good faith.
He said that military action could be among the options if the threat from the North gets too high.
"If North Korea takes actions that threaten South Korean forces or our own forces, that will be met with an appropriate response. If they elevate the threats of their weapons program to the level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table."
In a bid to make the current sanctions-oriented approach toward the North more effective, he urged allies and other countries to join the U.S.-led efforts to wean Pyongyang away from nuclear ambitions. In particular, he wanted China to be active in enforcing sanctions imposed on the North for its repeated violations of U.N. resolutions.
"We are calling on all countries to fully implement those sanctions. We are also calling on China to fully implement those sanctions as well in compliance with UNSC resolutions that it voted for," he said.
The former oil executive didn't say much about a "new approach" toward the North that he mentioned during a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday but reiterated that the past two decades of efforts to denuclearize the North have failed.
"The 20 years of talks with North Korea brought us to where we are today.... North Korea has nothing to fear from the U.S., but this 20 years of talking has brought us to where we are today," he noted.
Tillerson's visit to Korea is part of his three-country Asian tour that will also take him to China this weekend. This marked his first trip of this kind since taking office as top diplomat under the Donald Trump administration.
With regard to a possible resumption of talks with the North, he said that conditions are "not ripe." He added it is "premature" to seek a freeze on the North's nuclear program for the sake of bringing the North back to the negotiating table.
Tillerson's visit came amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The North conducted two nuclear tests last year and didn't respect multiple resolutions and sanctions, as it continued to carry out provocations, including the launch of four ballistic missiles early last week.
His visit to Seoul is also timed with the deepening spat between South Korea and China over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
China has been stepping up its retaliation against South Korea, mostly in the business sector, as South Korea and the U.S. went ahead with their plan to install a THAAD battery on the peninsula to better counter threats from the North. Beijing has objected to the plan, saying the powerful radar system will hurt its strategic security interests.
As Tillerson is to fly to China for talks with Chinese leaders early Saturday, observers expect that the THAAD issue could be touched upon.
Tillerson called on China to refrain from retaliating against South Korea over THAAD, saying that it is "inappropriate" and "troubling." He also stressed that the missile shield is for defensive purposes, not targeting anything other than missiles coming from the North.
"While we acknowledge Chinese opposition, its economic retaliation against South Korea is inappropriate and troubling. We ask China to refrain from such actions. Instead, we urge China to address the threat that makes that necessary," he said.
"I do believe that we will proceed with installation of THAAD, and it is my expectation that the new government in South Korea will continue to be supportive of the THAAD system because it is directed solely at defense of the ROK and protection of U.S. forces as well," he added.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also weighed in on the issue.
"South Korea and the U.S. will take action with dignity, bilaterally and through the global stage against China's unjustified pressure on such self-defense measures aimed at protecting its own people from outside threats," Yun said.
Tillerson underlined the importance of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, saying that the North's threat goes beyond the Asian region.
"The U.S.-South Korea alliance will continue to serve as a linchpin of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and across the Asia-Pacific region. We stand together in facing what was once a regional security challenge but today North Korea threatens not only its regional neighbors but the U.S. and other countries," he said. (Yonhap)