Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is considering “all options” to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat while criticizing China over moves to block a missile-defense system on the peninsula. In some of his most detailed comments yet on North Korea, Tillerson ruled out a negotiated freeze of its nuclear weapons program and called for a wider alliance to counter Kim Jong Un’s regime. He also left the military option on the table if the North Korean threat gets too large.
“If they elevate the threat of their weapons programs to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table,” Tillerson told reporters on Friday on a trip to South Korea when asked about the possibility of a military strike. He ruled out talks with North Korea until it commits to giving up its nuclear weapons.
Tillerson’s remarks were some of the most forceful yet from the Trump administration and signaled the U.S. was closing the door on a more conciliatory approach as it looks to curtail Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. With the range of North Korea’s missiles getting closer to North America, Tillerson is seeking a new approach as part of a trip to Japan, South Korea and China.
“Let me be very clear: this policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said. “All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”
On Saturday, Tillerson heads to China, the main ally and biggest trading partner of Kim’s regime. The U.S.’s top diplomat said China’s moves to retaliate against South Korea for agreeing to the deployment of a missile-defense program were “troubling” and “inappropriate.” He vowed to proceed with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, against China’s complaints.
China opposes the missile shield in part due to concerns that its radar will be used to counter its own military capabilities. Beijing suspended the operation of more than 50 Lotte Mart stores after the South Korean retail conglomerate agreed to sell land for Thaad, and ordered travel agents to stop selling tour packages to the nation.
“While we acknowledge China’s opposition, its economic retaliation against South Korea is inappropriate and troubling,” Tillerson said. “We ask China to refrain from such actions. Instead we urge China to address the threat that makes Thaad necessary, that being the escalating threat from North Korea.”
Tillerson spelled out a layered approach that would start with tightening enforcement of current United Nations sanctions and “widening the circle of allies” to deal with the North Korean threat.
From there, the U.S. will seek to cut off other sources of revenue that fall outside sanctions. He also rejected the idea of accepting a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program, saying that would leave the country with “significant capabilities that would represent a true threat not just to the region but to American forces as well.”
At the same time, Tillerson said the U.S. wanted economic prosperity and security for the North if it gives up its nuclear program.
“North Korea has nothing to fear from the United States, but this 20 years of talking has brought us to the point we are today,” he said.