TOKYO — It’s time to take a “different approach” to dealing with North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Tokyo on Thursday, because 20 years of diplomacy had “failed” to convince the regime in Pyongyang to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Tillerson’s comments will fuel fears in the region that military options might be on the table to deter North Korea — an approach that could prove devastating for Seoul, where more than 20 million people live within North Korean artillery range.
The secretary of state, making his first trip abroad since taking office, also backed President Trump’s proposed cuts to his department’s budget, saying that the current State budget was “simply not sustainable” and that he would “take the challenge on willingly.”
Tillerson was already in Tokyo when the Trump administration unveiled its proposed budget, which would cut combined spending for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by $10.1 billion, or nearly 29 percent.
The planned cuts to the State Department reflected expectations that the U.S. would become involved in fewer overseas conflicts, the secretary added. The proposed budget would increase defense spending by $54 billion.
Opening the first of three days of meetings in three countries — Japan, South Korea and China — Tillerson clearly put North Korea at the top of the agenda.
“I think it’s important to recognize the diplomatic efforts of the last 20 years to bring North Korea to the table have failed,” he said after a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida.
Thursday’s press conference looks to be the new secretary’s only forum for speaking to the media during this trip and they took questions only from four, pre-selected reporters. In a break with past practice, Tillerson did not allow the press corps to travel with him to Asia, instead choosing just one journalist — from the conservative Independent Journal Review — to fly on his plane.
His reference to 20 years of failure alluded to the 1994 deal between the U.S. and North Korea that would have seen Pyongyang receive aid and two proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants in return for freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
That deal collapsed in 2002 and years of stop-start efforts to reach a new deal have amounted to little, with North Korea actively pursuing nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them.
Over that time, the United States had given North Korea a total of $1.35 billion in assistance “as an encouragement to take a different pathway,” Tillerson said, but it had been met with continued weapons development.
“It is clear that a different approach is required,” he said, adding that he and Kishida had “exchanged views about a different approach.” He declined to go into specifics about what that might entail.
The Trump administration is now conducting a review of North Korea policy and some in Washington are advocating “kinetic options” — a euphemism for military action. Kishida said he had conveyed Japan’s views to Tillerson for consideration during the policy review, but he didn’t go into details.
In Tokyo, some ruling-party lawmakers are openly pushing for Japan to develop the capacity to preemptively strike North Korea. Kishida declined to answer an American reporter’s question on whether the government is actively considering this, a move that could prove tricky given Japan’s pacifist constitution.
While in Tokyo, Tillerson was also scheduled to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who forged a bond with President Trump during his visit to Washington last month.
The United States and the countries on Tillerson’s itinerary, aretrying to find ways to convince the regime led by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to stop firing missiles and pursuing nuclear weapons.
North Korea last month tested a missile that uses solid fuel, a big leap in its technological development, then this month fired a salvo of four missiles, part of what it said was a drill to practice hitting American military bases in Japan. Three of the four missiles landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
But there are sharply differing views in the region on how to change North Korea’s actions, and Tillerson will not encounter much willing agreement once he gets to Beijing.
The United States and Japan in particular have been urging China, North Korea’s ally and economic conduit, to use its influence to punish the regime. China has imposed a ban on coal imports from North Korea, a move that — if fully implemented — would deprive the regime of a crucial stream of revenue. But many analysts doubt Beijing will uphold the ban, given the instability it could create on China’s borders.
China has instead put the ball in the U.S. court, with the foreign minister suggesting a deal whereby North Korea agrees to stop testing missiles and the United States and South Korea stop joint military exercises.
The U.S. and South Korea are currently conducting annual exercises to practice for a sudden change on the peninsula. North Korea views the exercises as a pre-text for an invasion.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier arrived in the South Korean port of Busan Wednesday to join the drills, prompting North Korean threats of “merciless ultra-precision strikes” on it. The guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer had arrived in Busan earlier in the week.
But in a move sure to anger China as well as North Korea, the powerful X-band radar component for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system was due to arrive in South Korea Thursday, public broadcaster KBS reported. Two THAAD launchers arrived earlier in the month.
Beijing has strongly protested the deployment of the system to South Korea, concerned that the radar will be used to keep tabs on China as well as North Korea. China has sought to make the government in Seoul rethink the deployment by ordering painful economic boycotts.
Streets in Seoul that are usually crammed with Chinese tourists were reportedly almost empty Wednesday, when a ban on tour groups from China traveling to South Korea took effect.
Tillerson will head to South Korea Friday to meet the country’s foreign minister and acting president, both remnants of the Park Geun-hye administration. Park was impeached last week, triggering snap elections in early May. A change in South Korea’s government toward an administration that wants engagement with North Korea looks likely.
In China, North Korea will also be at the top of the agenda, but trade will also be a key topic of discussion.
Trump has repeatedly accused China of manipulating its currency and of stealing American jobs, raising the specter of a trade war. But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said this week that if a trade war broke out, “it would be foreign-invested companies, in particular U.S. firms, that would bear the brunt of it.”
In a move to stabilize relations, preparations are now underway for Trump to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida early next month.