Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday hosted the United States' Korean War allies, seeking diplomatic ways to avert the urgent threat of conflict with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The U.S. approach has so far consisted mainly of economic sanctions and belligerent threats from President Trump — which are matched and upped by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump has derisively called the young leader "Rocket Man," and the two have boasted about their nuclear launch buttons.
Tillerson said at the gathering of foreign ministers in Vancouver, a summit co-hosted by Canada, that the U.S.-led pressure campaign on North Korea was having an effect. He credited the efforts with persuading North Korea to talk to South Korea about participating in the Olympic Games, which start next month.
"It's encouraging," Tillerson said.
In fact, though, little that the U.S. or other world powers have done has halted Kim's steady march to the testing and development of nuclear weapons.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono sounded a discordant note.
"I am aware that some people argue that now that North Korea is engaging in inter-Korea dialogue, we should reward them by lifting up sanctions or by providing some sort of assistance," he said at the meeting, adding that such a response was premature.
"I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs," Kono said. Those who disagree, he said, are "just too naive."
Along with the 20 nations represented at the meeting of foreign ministers at the waterfront Vancouver Convention Center, the diplomatic approach is favored by Russia and China, Tillerson noted, although neither was invited to attend.
"This Vancouver ministerial is something which supports all of our efforts collectively," Brian Hook, the State Department director of policy planning, said ahead of the one-day meeting. "And we have been in touch with China and Russia on this ministerial, and we will be giving them a readout when it's over.
"I think they will welcome a lot of the actions that come out of the discussion because it all rolls up into the same policy end state," he said in a briefing in Washington with reporters.
While many of those in attendance urged stronger diplomatic pressure on North Korea, Tillerson and his Canadian counterpart, Chrystia Freeland, agreed that a truly reversed course of aggression by Kim is probably not obtainable if the saber rattling and personal insults continue on both sides.
"We must increase the cost of the regime's behavior to the point that North Korea comes to the table for credible negotiations," said Tillerson. "The object of negotiations, if and when we get there, is complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea."
Freeland said no real progress can be made until Pyongyang disarms. "The foremost threat to Korea is the regime of North Korea," she observed in a line addressed to Kim's nation, which is suffering through electrical, economic and food shortages resulting from United Nations sanctions.
The urgency of the standoff was underscored by two accidental missile-launch warnings that sent panic through Hawaii and Japan in recent days.
In the Hawaii case, officials say a state emergency management employee pushed a computer key twice after he selected the wrong line in a drop-down menu. But apparently it can be a challenge to pick the right one: The employee wrongly clicked on "PACOM (CDW) - State Only." He should have clicked on "Drill - PACOM (CDW) - State Only."
Fail-safe measures prevented a launch. But for 38 frightening minutes Saturday, some Hawaiians huddled in their dusty bomb shelters, others messaged goodbyes to loved ones, and more than a few were still saying their prayers before the all-clear was given.
On Tuesday, Japanese public broadcaster NHK mistakenly sent a news alert about a North Korean missile launch, which it corrected a few minutes later.
Summit diplomats met in private sessions throughout Tuesday, discussing further sanctions, a nonproliferation policy and what steps should be taken next. Tillerson said he was pleased to also see the North and South planning more military talks.
The day before, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone, the White House said. China is North Korea's closest ally, its main trading partner and is looked to by the U.S. as being the key to isolating Pyongyang.
Xi told Trump that tensions must be eased, Chinese state media reported.
"Maintaining international unity on the issue is extremely important," Xi said, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Special correspondent Anderson reported from Vancouver and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Washington.
4:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional Tillerson quotes.