US rhetoric on North Korea shifts as Tillerson sets military action 'on the table'

Speaking in Seoul on Friday, the US secretary of State sought to reassure allies that the United States is committed to halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Jung Yeon Je/Reuters
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (l.) speaks as South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se looks on during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, March 17, 2017.

If North Korea escalates the threat to America and its allies in the region, the United States will not hesitate to push back, Rex Tillerson indicated on Friday.

Speaking to a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, the secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer said the US government is prepared to do whatever it takes to deter a nuclear threat or threats to US and South Korean troops in the region. Ideally, a coordinated sanctions policy would be sufficient, he indicated, but military force is also a possibility.

"Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table," Secretary Tillerson said, according to Reuters. He clarified that this included military force.

That stance represents a break with previous administrations, which have considered the use of military force but have generally not openly expressed a willingness to use it. But the goal – finding a solution – remains the same, and military force will likely not be the first avenue the Trump administration pursues. Tillerson has called for cooperation with China, though this may face challenges.

Tillerson’s comments came as part of what State Department officials have described as a “listening tour.” He began the trip in Japan on Wednesday before continuing on to South Korea and will travel to China on Saturday.

Following President Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric, which called for Japan and South Korea to play a larger role in their own defense and promised sanctions on China, the tour may be an effort to reassure America’s Asian partners. It may also give China, Japan, and South Korea an opportunity to decide whether they trust Tillerson and whether he has the ear of the president.

“At each stop, when Tillerson is with our allies or with China, a great power, they are going to be wondering if what he has to say has weight in the White House,” David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi last week.

And these meetings may help elucidate a coherent North Korea policy at a complex and volatile time for the region. North Korea conducted two nuclear test explosions and 24 ballistic missile tests last year, according to the Associated Press. This month, the country launched four missiles that crashed within 200 miles of Japan’s coastline, which experts see as a simulated attack on a US base in Japan.

Longstanding tensions between South Korea and Japan have led South Korea to question Japan’s efforts to build up its military in response to North Korean aggression. China is concerned about South Korea’s use of a powerful anti-missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), against North Korea, seeing it as a threat to Chinese security. And China also sees talks, rather than sanctions or military force, as the path to de-escalation, potentially presenting an obstacle to the Trump administration’s new approach.

There are early signs of improved relations, however, and the tour may be able to build on these.

“Some of the things Trump and Tillerson have said about rock-solid support for our Asian allies have removed the deep concerns over things Trump said during the campaign,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow specializing in Japanese and Korean affairs at the Heritage Foundation, told Mr. LaFranchi.

On his visit Friday, Tillerson visited the demilitarized zone, created after the cold war ended in 1953, and met some of the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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