The Cable

Mattis, Tillerson Slam North Korea After Warmbier Death

Senior U.S. officials are still trying to get China to help rein in the Hermit Kingdom.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis railed against North Korea for its deadly treatment of an imprisoned American student and its unceasing development of an advanced weapons program. Their comments came after meeting with senior Chinese officials Wednesday to hash out a host of security issues, as Washington continues trying to enlist Beijing’s help to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Mattis said the North Korean regime, pursuing a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program despite universal condemnation, “provokes, provokes, and provokes.”

The regime’s brutality was highlighted after it released a young American man, detained for seventeen months, to the United States in a coma last week. Otto Warmbier, 22, died on Monday due to his treatment at the hands of the North Korean regime, though exact details on his ordeal remain unclear.

“We see a young man go over there healthy, and with a minor act of mischief, come home dead, basically,” Mattis said. Warmbier was arrested on a tourist trip to North Korea in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on sham charges. “There is no way that we can look at a situation like this with any kind of understanding. This is — goes beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility towards any human being,” Mattis said.

Mattis spoke alongside Tillerson after a high-level security dialogue with top Chinese officials Yang Jiechi, Chinese foreign-policy chief, and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s joint staff department. Yang and Fang declined to speak alongside Mattis and Tillerson at the press conference, a senior State Department official said.

Beijing is increasingly caught in the middle of the Trump administration’s showdown with Pyongyang. China is North Korea’s economic lifeline, accounting for 90 percent of trade with the Hermit Kingdom, much of it funneled through a shadowy network of front companies and businesses. That makes it difficult for Washington to ratchet up pressure on the North Korean regime without Beijing’s help. And Tillerson, like Trump before him, said it could do a lot more on that front.

“We reiterated to China that they have a diplomatic responsibility to exert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime if they want to prevent further escalation in the region,” Tillerson said.

Also on the agenda were simmering geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea. Mattis has taken a low-key, pragmatic approach to relations with China, especially when it comes to competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing has enlarged a cluster of small reefs and built military airfields and air defense systems.

“While competition between our nations is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable,” Mattis said. China’s claims to most of the South China Sea and many of its atolls and islets, he said, are not recognized under international law, and the United States “will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Trump on Twitter Tuesday thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for what the president said were efforts by Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump tweeted. “At least I know China tried!”

Actually, during the first quarter of 2017, after Trump personally asked Xi to ratchet up economic pressure on North Korea, China’s trade with the country grew by about 34 percent.

Neither Mattis or Tillerson made mention — nor were asked — about Trump’s tweet.

The North Korean ambassador to India, Kye Chun Yong, said Wednesday his government is willing to talk about freezing its nuclear and missile testing programs if the United States and South Korea meet certain preconditions.

“If our demands is met, we can negotiate in terms of the moratorium of such as weapons testing,” Kye said in English in an interview with Indian television, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. Pyongyang reportedly seeks a halt to annual joint military drills between Washington and Seoul, which the North labels provocations.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military flew two B-1B bombers over the Korean peninsula in a show of force to Pyongyang amid the region’s heightened tensions, and there are two aircraft carrier strike groups operating in the western Pacific: the USS Ronald Reagan, which is stationed in Japan, and the USS Nimitz which earlier this week sailed into the area.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington next week, where the two will have further discussions over North Korea. There are already signs that Moon, who was voted into office advocating a return to “sunshine policies” of rapprochement with North Korea, may be taking a harder line. Moon told the Washington Post in an interview published Tuesday that he would only push relations forward with the North if it halts work on its nuclear weapons program.

It is “important to send out a message to North Korea that if it decides to denuclearize and to come to the negotiating table, then we are willing to assist them,” Moon said. But if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un refuses to cooperate, “I believe that we will have no choice but to apply additional and strong pressure on it,” Moon said.

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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