WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to visit Japan, South Korea and China later this month mainly for talks on North Korean issues, diplomatic sources said Friday.
In what will be his first trip to the region since becoming President Donald Trump’s top diplomat on Feb. 1, Tillerson is arranging to visit Japan on March 17 and 18 for talks with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the sources said.
The trip comes as the Trump administration is reportedly reviewing its policy options for North Korea, ranging from putting the country back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, to use of military force and regime change to curb the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang.
During the visit to Beijing, Tillerson plans to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and possibly with President Xi Jinping, according to the sources.
The two sides are expected to coordinate a meeting between Xi and Trump in the United States as early as April, they said.
Tillerson is expected to urge China, which has considerable economic leverage on North Korea, to put more pressure on Pyongyang. Trump has complained Beijing has not been doing enough to press Pyongyang to rein in its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Tillerson also plans to seek China’s approval of the planned deployment in South Korea of an advanced U.S. missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, as part of a greater deterrence effort against North Korea.
He is likely to raise trade issues between the world’s two biggest economies and Washington’s objection to Beijing’s island construction and militarization of outposts in disputed areas of the South China Sea as well.
In the Tokyo meeting, Tillerson and Kishida are likely to discuss the specific timing of a visit to Japan by Trump this year, according to the sources.
In Seoul, Tillerson plans to hold talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se at which North Korea’s weapons development as well as the Feb. 13 assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Malaysia are likely to be at the top of the agenda.
Trump administration officials have said “all options” are under consideration to deal with the North, a departure from the previous policy of “strategic patience” pursued by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Obama’s policy of patience — or waiting for North Korea to change its behavior under the pressure of sanctions — has been widely regarded as ineffective in curbing its missile and nuclear weapon development.
Last year alone, North Korea launched more than 20 ballistic missiles as well as conducting two atomic tests, including its most powerful to date.
Last month, Pyongyang test-launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that expressly prohibit the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs — an act that many analysts regarded as a test of Trump’s North Korea policy.
The Feb. 12 launch was followed by the killing of Kim Jong Nam, in which Pyongyang’s involvement is suspected. Malaysian police have determined that the highly toxic nerve agent VX was used to swiftly kill him at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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