Report

Rex Tillerson Calls On U.N. Members To Tighten Vise On North Korea

China, Russia, and other powers voice fear that U.S. threat of military action may lead to miscalculation and war.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) speaks as British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson (L) and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (C) listen during a security council meeting on North Korea at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 28, 2017. 
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington will push for a tougher global response to North Korea during a meeting Friday of the UN Security Council that will see China come under heavy pressure to rein in its ally.
 / AFP PHOTO / Jewel SAMAD        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) speaks as British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson (L) and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (C) listen during a security council meeting on North Korea at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 28, 2017. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington will push for a tougher global response to North Korea during a meeting Friday of the UN Security Council that will see China come under heavy pressure to rein in its ally. / AFP PHOTO / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appealed to United Nations members to increase North Korea’s financial isolation with new economic sanctions, while threatening to impose penalties on governments that engaged in banned business activities with the regime. But just hours after he spoke, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that exploded almost immediately after takeoff, the South Korean military told Yonhap News Agency.

Tillerson’s remarks before the U.N. Security Council marked a sharp escalation in the Trump administration’s effort to punish and isolate Pyongyang for advancing a nuclear weapons program in the face of repeated U.N. demands that it desist. And it comes just one day after Trump warned in an interview with Reuters that we may be headed toward “a major, major conflict” with North Korea.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shrugged off the threat, carrying out the country’s 75th ballistic missile since he came to power in April 2012, according to the Washington Post. President Trump took to Twitter, where he characterized the test as an affront to Pyongyang’s most powerful ally, China. “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today,” he wrote. “Bad!”

At the U.N. Friday morning, Tillerson echoed the president’s tough talk, warning that the United States is prepared to use “military action, if necessary,” to halt North Korea’s effort to advance its nuclear weapons program. But he insisted that Washington would prefer a “negotiated settlement” to the nuclear standoff.

Tillerson said that 20 years of diplomatic efforts to halt North Korea nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs “have failed” and “time has come for all of us to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path.”

“The threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real,” Tillerson said before an audience that included the foreign ministers of Britain, China, Japan, and South Korea. “And it is likely only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S. mainland.”

The threat of conflict has rattled foreign dignitaries, including U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who told the council this morning that while North Korea’s conduct is to be condemned he is “alarmed by the risk of a military escalation in the region, including by miscalculation or misunderstanding.” In an indirect reference to U.S. military activities in Asia, he voiced concern that the “effort to offset the destabilizing activities of [North Korea] could also result in increased arms competition and tensions.”

Indeed, the remarks have the potential to place Washington on a collision course with China and Russia, who denounced Pyonyang’s spate of recent nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests, but who warned that confrontation could lead to war.

“The combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle flexing has led to this situation where the whole world sits seriously now wondering whether there is going to be a war or not,” said Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.

The rise in tensions in the region “has caused widespread concern and worries” that the crisis in North Korea could “take a turn for the worse and spiral out of control,” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Wang said China’s commitment to North Korea’s denuclearization remains “rock firm” but he also denounced the conduct of a joint naval exercise involving U.S., Japanese and South Korean ships as well as the deployment in South Korea of the THAAD missile defense system.

“While we demand [North Korea] observe the council resolutions and stop advancing its nuclear and missile development,” Wang said, “we also demand the United States, [South Korea] and other parties refrain from conducting or even expanding military exercises against [North Korea].” The activities, Wang added, “seriously undermines the strategic security of China and other countries.”

Wang proposed that Washington resume political talks with North Korea. As a basis for such talks, he proposed a “dual freeze” proposal that would require North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile activities while the United States and its allies halt military exercises. “To achieve this, it is necessary to put aside the debate over who should take the first step, arguing who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

Tillerson said that the United States would only agree to talks with North Korea if it “takes concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies.”

Tillerson proposed states undertake a series of steps aimed at curtailing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, including by enforcing existing sanctions, downgrading diplomatic relations, and increasing its economic isolation by levying new sanctions against the regime. Those would include a suspension of North Korea’s guest worker program and an expanded ban on imports from North Korea.

Tillerson made clear that China, which he said accounts for 90 percent of trade with North Korea, bears the unique ability to pressure the rogue state to halt its banned missile a nuclear weapons tests.

“The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it,” Tillerson said. “We have said this before and it bears repeating: The policy of strategic patience is over. Additional patience will only mean acceptance of a nuclear North Korea.”

Wang countered suggestions by Tillerson and other U.S. officials that China holds the key to resolving the crisis. “China is not a focal point of the problem on the peninsula” he said. “The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side.“

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated.

Correction, April 28, 2017: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and that of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea.

 

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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