Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Friday for new economic sanctions on North Korea and other “painful” measures, and he asked other countries to suspend diplomatic relations with the communist regime at a special session of the U.N. Security Council.
The Trump administration had said Thursday that it is willing to bargain directly with North Korea over ending its nuclear weapons program, but under strict conditions.
“Obviously, that will be the way we would like to solve this,” Tillerson said in an interview with NPR Friday. “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.”
In the NPR interview and another Thursday with Fox News, Tillerson began to sketch a diplomatic approach for the new administration that focuses on international pressure and leveraging China’s economic power over its impoverished ally.
Tillerson’s call for new sanctions followed remarks by President Donald Trump that direct conflict is possible.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters in an interview this week.
The president added, “We’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.”
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who joined Tillerson and foreign ministers from countries that sit on the decision-making council, condemned what he called North Korea’s repeated violations of the body’s resolutions over nuclear and missile testing and development.
“I am alarmed by the risk of a military escalation in the region, including by miscalculation or misunderstanding,” Guterres said.
“I am particularly concerned by the possibility that efforts to offset the destabilizing activities of the DPRK could also result in increased arms competition and tensions, further impeding the ability of the international community to maintain unity and achieve a peaceful solution,” Guterres said, using an acronym for the country’s formal name Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.
The U.N. Security Council session Friday comes at a particularly tense time in relations between North Korea and the United States, with the Trump administration sending warships to the region in a show of force against Kim Jong Un’s regime.
This week, North Korea conducted large-scale artillery drills, showing off conventional weaponry that can easily reach South Korea’s capital, Seoul, the center of a metropolitan region that is home to about 25 million people.
The Trump administration has said that military action to head off further North Korean nuclear weapons development is not out of the question, but it remains unlikely. A goal of future U.N. diplomacy could be to draw lines for when escalation by North Korea would justify retaliatory action by the United States or others, diplomats and arms control experts said.
At issue is the simultaneous effort in North Korea to perfect a nuclear warhead that could be delivered far from its shores and to develop missiles with a range long enough to be a threat to the United States. Undeterred, North Korea could have that capability within a few years – likely during Trump’s first term in office. North Korea already possesses missiles able to threaten U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, as well as other Asian neighbors.
“We entered office confronted with a very serious threat from North Korea. We knew that coming in, and the president gave that immediate attention,” Tillerson said in the Fox interview. “Tensions are running a bit high right now. We expected they would. In our approach to addressing this issue, we know there’s going to be risk involved.”
A North Korean propaganda outlet released a video clip on Thursday showing a simulated attack on the White House and declaring that ability to destroy the United States “is in our sights.”
In setting terms for direct talks – that they be directed at getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons entirely, rather than freezing the program in exchange for economic benefits – Tillerson said the Trump administration is taking a tougher line than in past efforts by both Democratic and Republican administrations, but it still caries strong echoes of earlier policy.
He also suggested that China’s views are helping shape the administration’s position.
The last round of direct talks, initiated in 2003 and involving the United States, China and other nations, produced no rollback of the North Korean program. Last month, during his first trip to South Korea, Japan and China, Tillerson declared that the “era of strategic patience” that included those talks was over, and that “all options” were now on the table.
“I first spoke to the Chinese on my first trip to Beijing to make clear to them that we were unwilling to negotiate our way to the negotiating table,” Tillerson said in the Fox News interview. “And I think that’s the mistakes of the past,” he added. “The regime in North Korea has to position itself in a different place in order for us to be willing to engage in talks.”
Trump has been urging China to apply pressure on North Korea and has warned that his administration will act if Beijing does not.
China supports talks and has long argued that although it also wants to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, it cannot persuade North Korea to give them up without direct assurances from the United States.
Tillerson offered some Thursday, telling Fox that the United States is not seeking “regime change” to topple the family dynasty of Kim Jong Un, or an “excuse” for the reunification of U.S. ally South Korea with its communist neighbor on the Korean Peninsula.
“The regime in the past has indicated the reason they pursue nuclear weapons is they feel that is the only way to ensure their survival as a regime. We want to change that view of theirs,” Tillerson said. “And we have said to them that your pathway to survival and security is to eliminate your nuclear weapons, and we and other countries will be prepared to help you on a pathway of economic development.”
The Trump administration is also threatening other action, with or without wide international backing, but the thrust of Friday’s U.N. session is to show that even China, the source of 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, has had enough, U.S. and other diplomats said.
Although the council is not voting on new sanctions or other measures Friday, the Trump administration hopes for a show of force with the entire council, including China, Russia, and the United States, coming together to air concerns about North Korea’s behavior.
Showing a willingness to hold talks with North Korea could help the United States get that unified front, but Washington risks alienating other Security Council members if it tries to set terms other countries would see as unrealistic.
“Until and unless the United States shows a willingness to engage in at least ‘talks about talks’ with North Korea, it is very unlikely they will agree to support new sanctions against North Korea,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “If Trump and his team insist on a North Korean commitment to ‘denuclearization’ before talks can begin, other members of [the] council will see the U.S. call for ‘engagement’ as unserious and will not support new . . . sanctions.”
The meeting, which Tillerson will chair, caps the month-long U.S. leadership of the Security Council. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley frequently used the rotating council presidency in April to highlight the North Korean threat.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anne Gearan