Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first trip to Asia made a firm if vague vow Thursday to find ways to stop North Korea’s steady march to the use of nuclear weapons.
Tillerson took questions from reporters for the first time publicly since he assumed office as the Trump administration’s top diplomat more than six weeks ago, amid many reports that he and his State Department have been marginalized by a White House that wants to control — and limit — foreign policy.
Tillerson said the United States had to adopt a “different approach” in confronting North Korea because the last two decades of policy have failed.
“Efforts over the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed; we’ve had 20 years of failed approaches,” Tillerson said in Tokyo, the first stop on his six-day, three-nation Asian tour.
“In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it’s clear that a different approach is required,” Tillerson said alongside his diplomatic counterpart, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and ahead of a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Tillerson did not offer details about what a new approach might entail. His aides have said no options, including a possible preemptive military strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, are off the table. Military action, however, would endanger South Korea and anger China, the two next stops on Tillerson’s trip.
The United States has hoped to enlist more support from China, North Korea’s main economic ally, in reining in Pyongyang’s launch of ballistic missiles and nuclear tests. But President Trump’s often belligerent rhetoric toward China, including his threat of trade sanctions, has complicated that task.
Tillerson, former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, said a purpose of his trip was to “share ideas” about how to deal with Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear and missile capabilities, what he called a “dangerous and unlawful” advancement.
He noted that U.S. aid of $1.3 billion to North Korea in recent years was met only with more such “provocative” activity.
The United States, however, with the United Nations, has imposed stiff sanctions on North Korea that prohibited it from exporting raw materials, among other restrictions. Pyongyang has managed to circumvent many of the sanctions, partly with help from China.
Tillerson also affirmed the United States’ security commitment to Japan, the world’s fourth-largest economy. In addition to potential attacks from North Korea, the island nation is concerned about challenges to its sovereignty in the East China Sea and its trade relationship with the United States.
“North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea,” Tillerson said. “The United States calls on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and refrain from any further provocations. The U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and its other treaty allies through the full range of our military capabilities is unwavering.”
In visiting the three countries over several days, the veteran oilman but inexperienced diplomat enters a hornet’s nest of geopolitical intrigue and tension. China, Japan and South Korea are all concerned about the rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs in North Korea, and each has distinct interests on the subject — and its own domestic pressures.
The uncertainty in the region — and Tillerson’s relative inexperience as a diplomat — has led some to set low expectations in terms of policy pronunciations for the visit.
“It’s not the kind of environment in which things can be firmed up or changed radically,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.
After Japan, Tillerson is scheduled to meet with leaders and U.S. military commanders in Seoul and along the North Korean border Friday. He will then travel to China, where he is expected to request more help in pressuring North Korea.
“We do believe they [the Chinese] have a very important role to play,” Tillerson said Thursday. “China is a major source of economic trade and activity with North Korea. China has long stated their policy that they too want a denuclearized North Korea.”
Although the countries are largely aligned on the North’s weapons, they are often at odds with one another on other topics.
South Korea and Japan have tension dating back centuries, but most recently during World War II, when thousands of Korean women were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese occupation forces. A reporter raised the issue with Tillerson on Thursday.
Tillerson said he appreciated it’s “painful dealing with such historic issues” and said an agreement over the matter between South Korea and Japan was crucial to broader efforts to challenge North Korea.
Regardless, South Korea and Japan do cooperate on many issues. They also believe China could do more to pressure the reclusive government of leader Kim Jong Un, grandson of the communist nation’s patriarch.
China has pressured North Korea, but it’s also nervous about destabilizing the country so much that the Kim government collapses. That could cause a refugee crisis on their shared border — or worse.
Tillerson is also scheduled to meet with the American general commanding forces in South Korea and his diplomatic counterpart, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. The two met last month in Germany.
Political analysts say Tillerson’s messages to Tokyo and Seoul would likely be intended to reassure them that they can expect stability in their relationships with the United States. He began that effort in Japan on Thursday.
“Japan and South Korea really want a commitment that the United States is going to stay involved in Asia and really backstop them and protect their freedom,” said Grant Newsham, a former diplomat who is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
Special correspondent Stiles reported from Seoul and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Washington. Times staff writer Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing contributed to this report.
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments and background.
This article was originally published at 7:05 a.m.