Visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated Thursday in Tokyo that Washington is ready to toughen its diplomatic approach toward North Korea, noting the futility of trying to convince it to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
“It is important to recognize that diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed. So we have 20 years of failed approach,” Tillerson said in a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
The U.S. provided $1.35 billion in assistance to encourage North Korea to “take a different pathway,” he said. But all that encouragement “has been met with further development of nuclear capability and more missile launches. … In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required.”
“Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach,” Tillerson added.
Tillerson flew to Japan Wednesday on his first, five-day visit to East Asia. Tokyo was his first stop, where he met with Kishida and later with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, Tillerson told Kishida that “all options are on the table” in dealing with North Korea’s military threat.
The official declined to comment further, adding that specific military options were not discussed.
According to the official, who declined to be named, Tillerson offered “several ideas” for dealing with Pyongyang, adding that they do not contradict Japan’s policies that Kishida explained to Tillerson.
Currently the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump is reviewing its diplomatic policies toward North Korea. One key purpose of Tillerson’s trip is to explain the review process and enhance the transparency of the U.S. stance, the official said.
During the news conference, Tillerson said he had “a very open, candid discussion” with Kishida about taking a different approach toward North Korea. However, neither Tillerson nor Kishida gave specific details about what that might entail during their news conference.
After leaving Japan Friday, Tillerson is scheduled to visit South Korea and China. He said he hopes to hold similar discussion with his counterparts in Seoul and Beijing.
At the outset of the meeting with Kishida, Tillerson praised Japan as a “cornerstone of peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”
During the news conference, Tillerson also emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea in dealing with the military threat from North Korea.
Last year, the North test-fired more than 20 ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan and detonated two nuclear devices, raising serious security concerns for Japan and the U.S.
On March 6, Pyongyang launched four ballistic missiles, one of which landed about 200 km north of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. The improved accuracy of North Korea’s missile capability has further deepened concerns among Japanese officials.
In that context, Tillerson said trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. is extremely important, urging Seoul and Tokyo to settle a still-lingering row over the “comfort women” issue by observing a 2015 bilateral agreement.
Tillerson was referring to women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, including many from the Korean Peninsula.
In December 2015, the two countries agreed to settle all issues over comfort women, but the matter remains contentious.
“We encourage both sides to approach that agreement in honest, and sincere efforts to bring this to a conclusion,” Tillerson said.
It is important for the U.S., Japan and South Korea to “maintain a strong alliance in which there is no space between us” in dealing with the military threat from North Korea, he said.