TOKYO (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday the escalating threat from North Korea’s nuclear program showed a clear need for a “new approach,” although he stopped short of detailing what steps the Trump administration would pursue.
Tillerson was speaking at a news conference following talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, the start of his first trip to Asia as secretary of state. It was the first time Tillerson, a former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, took questions from the media since joining office in early February.
Two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including aid given to North Korea by the United States, had failed to achieve the goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang, he said.
“So we have 20 years of failed approach,” Tillerson said. “That includes a period where the United States has provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway.”
He added: “In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach.”
Tillerson visits South Korea and China later in the week. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that he will warn Chinese officials that the United States would increase missile defenses in the region and target Chinese banks if Beijing does not constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday that Tillerson will have “substantive, hard” talks with U.S. partners in Asia on the next steps in dealing with North Korea, but his visit was not likely to produce an immediate specific response.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeated Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposal last week that North Korea should stop its nuclear and missile tests and South Korea and the United States should stop joint military drills and seek talks instead.
“We welcome all parties, including the United States, to come up with their own proposals,” Hua told a daily news briefing. “As long as these proposals are conducive to ameliorating the present tense situation on the Korean peninsula and are beneficial to maintaining regional peace and stability … China will have an open attitude.”
Tillerson made it clear he expected China to do more.
“We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking that would be helpful to bringing North Korea to a different attitude about its future need for nuclear weapons,” he said.
Japan is seeking clues to Washington’s policies both on North Korea and China’s increasing military and economic clout while hoping to steer clear of trade rows during Tillerson’s visit.
Donald Trump made it a hallmark of his presidential campaign to call on U.S. allies, including Japan, to pay more for hosting U.S. forces and other elements of U.S. protection.
During the joint news conference with Kishida, Tillerson issued a far gentler version of that message, first underscoring the “long-standing” U.S.-Japanese alliance.
“While the security environment in this region can be challenging, the United States is committed to strengthening our role, and we welcome an increased Japanese commitment to their roles and responsibilities in our alliance,” he said.
North Korea last week launched four more ballistic missiles and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.
Washington has previously said all options, including military, are on the table in its review of policies toward North Korea, and Japanese officials are keen to know more details. In the final months of the Obama administration, U.S. officials warned China it would blacklist Chinese companies and banks that do illicit business with North Korea if Beijing failed to enforce United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.
Tillerson’s trip to Asia also comes as the United States has begun deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, a move that China strongly objects to because it sees the system’s radar as a threat to its security.
Pak Myong Ho, a North Korean embassy official speaking in Beijing on Thursday, said the THAAD deployment “will destroy the balance in Northeast Asia and the Pacific region.”
“The radar is not aimed at just us,” Pak said. “It is also aiming for China and Russia.”
China’s assertiveness in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial row with Japan, and the South China Sea, where it has disputes with the Philippines and several other Southeast Asian nations, will also be on the agenda during Tillerson’s visit to Japan as will trade.
Trump administration trade adviser Peter Navarro cited Japan on Monday for non-tariff trade barriers and said Washington must use its leverage as the world’s largest market to boost U.S. exports.
Some Japanese officials, though, say trade will take a back seat to security. “We have more key issues of common concern, like North Korea,” one official said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to media.