Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that pre-emptive military action against North Korea is “an option on the table” and that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” regarding the isolated nation is over. “Certainly we do not want to, for things to get to military conflict,” Tillerson told reporters at a Seoul press conference. “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, then, that option’s on the table.” He also ruled out any negotiations to reach a deal on North Korea freezing its nuclear-weapons development program. Tillerson made the comments just one day after he’d issued public assurances that Pyongyang “need not fear” the U.S. and could just abandon its “dangerous and unlawful” nuclear-weapons program. The former ExxonMobil CEO is on his first trip to Asia as a U.S. diplomat. On Friday, he visited the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas. Japan held its first missile drill Friday in the wake of North Korea’s recent ballistic-missile test firings into waters off its coast.
The US has said its policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over and suggested it might decide to take pre-emptive military action.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the option was “on the table” if the threat from the North’s weapons programme reached a level requiring it.
During a visit to South Korea, he also said the US was exploring a range of new diplomatic and economic measures.
And he defended the deployment of a US missile system in South Korea.
The move has angered China but South Korea and the US say the system is needed to defend against North Korea.
US President Donald Trump tweeted that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and had been “playing” the US “for years”. “China has done little to help!” he added.
Mr Tillerson spoke shortly after visiting the demilitarised zone which divides the two Koreas.
He arrived in South Korea from Japan, where he had said that 20 years of efforts aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions had failed.
Asked if the possibility for military action existed, he said: “Certainly we do not want to, for things to get to military conflict.”
But he added: “If they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, then that option’s on the table.”
North Korea has conducted nuclear and missile tests in recent years, and says it is close to testing long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and reaching the US.
Unnecessary and troubling
The US has accused China, North Korea’s main ally, of not doing enough to rein it in but Beijing remains wary of any action that could destabilize the North Korean government and potentially create chaos on its border.
During his address in Seoul, Mr Tillerson called on China to fully implement sanctions imposed by the UN in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.
“I don’t believe we have ever fully achieved the maximum level of action that can be taken under the UN Security Council resolution with full participation of all countries,” he said.
China is also strongly opposed to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in South Korea. America says the system is aimed at North Korea but China says it will allow the US to spy on its territory.
In recent days there have been multiple reports of apparent economic retaliation aimed at South Korea by Beijing. Mr Tillerson called these actions “unnecessary and troubling”.
“We also believe it is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat for everyone,” he said.