Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the world community Friday to drastically increase pressure on North Korea, warning that failure to do so could be “catastrophic” and that the US is prepared to take military action against the rogue regime if necessary.
“All options for responding to future provocations must remain on the table,” Tillerson said. “Diplomatic and financial leverage or power will be backed up by willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action, if necessary.”
Tillerson, speaking at a special US-hosted UN meeting to address the challenge, called on member countries to take three immediate steps, singling out China as he did so and warning that countries that don’t comply may face consequences.
He urged nations to fully enforce existing sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with the already isolated country and increase its financial isolation by targeting countries and individuals that support its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
“The United States also would much prefer countries and people in question to own up to their lapses and correct their behavior themselves,” Tillerson said. “But we will not hesitate to sanction third country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s illegal activities.”
“For too long the international community has been reactive,” Tillerson said, telling the Security Council that the era of “strategic patience” is over. “The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.”
Tillerson said that the US would “much prefer a diplomatic solution to this problem” and stressed that the US was not interested in regime change or destabilizing the region. But he made clear the US is committed to defending itself and its allies.
“We must prefer a negotiated solution to this problem, but we are committed to defending ourselves and our allies against North Korean aggression,” he said.
The UN meeting comes a day after Tillerson told NPR that the US is willing to engage in talks with North Korea, even as President Donald Trump warned about the possibility of armed conflict with the nuclear-armed regime.
Tillerson told NPR Thursday that the US would be willing to negotiate with Pyongyang. It’s a step other administrations have been reluctant to take, seeing it as a reward for the regime’s aggressive and belligerent behavior. It’s also a step that Vice President Mike Pence ruled out less than two weeks ago.
Asked if the administration would consider talks, Tillerson said, “Obviously, that will be the way we would like to solve this. But North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the right agenda, and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.”
But in his own interview on Thursday, Trump warned, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea, absolutely.”
Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview that “we’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.”
The UN meeting is meant to intensify pressure on the isolated country and convey in no uncertain terms that Washington expects other countries to help. In making his call for countries to isolate North Korea diplomatically, Tillerson said that “in light of recent actions, normal relations with the DPRK are simply not acceptable.”
He called on countries to sever “trade relationships that directly fund the DPRK’s nuclear and missile program” and pointed specifically to China: “With China accounting for 90% of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique.”
But the contradiction with Pence, not to mention Trump’s strong warning Thursday night, may leave allies uncertain. Pence told CNN in a recent exclusive interview that the US will not be negotiating directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un anytime soon.
“The only thing we need to hear from North Korea is that they are ending and ultimately dismantling their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program,” Pence said aboard the USS Ronald Reagan at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.
As a candidate, Trump had said he would be willing to speak with Kim, but asked if direct negotiations with North Korea were a possibility, Pence replied, “not at this time.” And acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said this week that North Korea is “nowhere near” ready to enter talks.
The administration has also been trying to change Kim’s calculus through shows of force and tough talk, with Trump warning that if China doesn’t act to restrain Pyongyang, “we will.” But Tillerson also made clear in his NPR interview that the US is not seeking regime change or a reunified Korean peninsula, but simply a denuclearized North Korea.
The administration has also shifted its rhetoric about Kim, with Tillerson telling Fox News that “all indications are that he is not crazy.” Citing intelligence assessments and psychological analyses, Tillerson said, “he may be ruthless,” and “he may be a murderer, he may be someone who, in many respects, we would say by our standards is irrational. But he is not insane.”
And Trump expressed something that sounded like sympathy for the 33-year-old autocrat.
“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump told Reuters. “I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational.”
The secretary insisted to Fox that the administration’s approach is different from that of the Obama administration in both intensity and expectations for global cooperation.
The administration has delivered a drumbeat of warnings about the dangers of North Korea this week. The display is meant to put the world — and, in particular, North Korea and its main protector, China — on notice that the Trump administration has made this a top priority.
China has certainly noticed and is conveying its alarm. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart Thursday that “the current situation on the Korean Peninsula runs the potential risk of spiraling out of control.”
A Foreign Ministry spokesman also signaled China’s displeasure about the tone of the UN meeting. “If this meeting focuses on only imposing more sanctions and exerting more pressure, I think this meeting will become a lost opportunity,” spokesman Geng Shuang said Friday. “It may aggravate the confrontation between relevant sides and harm current efforts in promoting peace and dialogue.”
He added that the US willingness to negotiate was “a positive and constructive signal and we commend it.
But the administration’s brinksmanship, particularly with an unpredictable and unstable leader such as Kim, has put some observers on edge.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “the White House is ratcheting up rhetoric in a way that has no off-ramp. If you continue to ratchet this up, what happens when North Korea does something?” asked Duckworth, an Iraq War combat veteran. “Are we then bound to attack them?”
CNN’s Michelle Kosinski contributed to this report; edited By Elise Labott, Nicole Gaouette and Laura Koran, CNN.