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(LEAD) (News Focus) Trump's N. Korea policy packed with sticks, rather than carrots

2017/03/18 06:41

(ATTN: FIXES typo in para 10)

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, March 17 (Yonhap) -- Clearer contours of the new U.S. policy on North Korea emerged as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made unmistakably clear that carrots have failed to disarm Pyongyang and the new package of options will be packed with sticks, including even the use of force.

"All options are on the table," a diplomatic parlance that usually refers to military action, was said twice during Tillerson's joint news conference in Seoul with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se as the top American diplomat delivered a thinly veiled warning to Pyongyang.

"All of the options are on the table. Certainly, we do not want for things to get to a military conflict ... But obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response," Tillerson said.

"If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table," he said, referring to a military option.

At the same time, Tillerson also said that reopening negotiations any time soon is not an option.

"It is important that the leadership of North Korea realize that their current pathway of nuclear weapons and escalating threats will not lead to their objective of security and economic development. That pathway can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction," Tillerson said.

"And only then will we be prepared to engage with them in talks," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

That's quite a hardline stance that the North has long denounced as a demand for unilateral disarmament. And it's an unacceptable demand for a regime that has put in decades of effort to build nuclear bombs and conduct five nuclear tests, and now insists that it be treated as a legitimate nuclear power.

Tillerson's remarks could make Pyongyang put an official end to its "wait and see" attitude that has kept the regime from large-scale provocations, such as a test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests, in the possible hope of reopening talks with the administration of President Donald Trump.

Just hours after Tillerson's press conference, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, "North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!"

   Tilleron's trip, which also included a stop in Japan before Seoul and will take him to Beijing on Saturday, came as the White House was nearing the completion of a new strategy to deal with the North's nuclear and missile threats.

From the trip's outset, it was pretty clear that the new strategy will be pressure-oriented.

In Tokyo, Tillerson said emphatically that 20 years of diplomatic and other efforts to denuclearize the North have failed, even though the U.S. provided the North with $1.35 billion in food and energy aid as an encouragement to take a different pathway.

"That encouragement has been met with further development of nuclear capabilities, more missile launches, including those of the recent February 11th and March the 5th. In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required," he said.

He said in Seoul that "20 years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today."

   So, it's clear that for the time being, the U.S. is expected to focus on tightening sanctions on the North while trying to get Beijing to use more of its leverage over Pyongyang as its main food and energy provider.

Tillerson said that sanctions have not yet been applied at the "maximum level."

   "There also are other sources of revenue to North Korea that fall outside of the specific sanctions, and we know that other nations could take actions to alter their relationship with North Korea in support of our efforts to have them give up their nuclear weapons program," he said.

He urged China to fully implement sanctions on the North.

Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, said that Tillerson's reference to a military option illustrates U.S. concerns about the North's ever-growing weapons capabilities.

"Although, consideration of the use of force in an extreme situation is not new -- President Obama was always careful to say that such an option was not off the table -- as the North has gotten closer to acquiring such capabilities, the need to consider such a step has become more urgent," he said.

"I think Washington and the others will want the North to understand that this is a serious possibility and it should not mistakenly believe that it can provoke endlessly without facing grave consequences," he told Yonhap News Agency.

Tillerson's remarks also appear aimed at China, he said.

"It is the real prospect of eventual military confrontation that Washington has been trying to bring Beijing to understand so that it would be willing to consider meaningful steps to halt the North's nuclear weapons program beyond calling for return to the negotiating table," Romberg said.

"Surely one of Mr. Tillerson's key messages to the Chinese leadership -- and one of President Trump's key messages to President Xi when they meet -- will be that without such PRC engagement, the chances of conflict will likely grow," he said.

Robert Manning, a senior analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank, said that a preemptive strike carries too much risks because it could lead to the North striking back at Seoul and the clash could escalate into a full-scale war.

"About 28 million people in greater Seoul are within range of 40,000 North Korean artillery tubes and thousands of Scud and Nodong missiles. Tillerson underestimates the reality of mutual deterrence," Manning said.

Earlier, the New York Times and other reports had said that the White House concluded through a few policy meetings on North Korea that preemptive strikes on the North's nuclear and missile sites won't be possible without starting a war.

The reports also said that a consensus was forming around the option of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure, especially by pressing China to exercise more of its leverage over Pyongyang while beefing up defenses with advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.

Tillerson also said that military action would be a last resort.

"We are hopeful that, by taking these steps -- and we have many, many steps we can take before we get to that point -- we hope that that will persuade North Korea to take a different course of action. That is our desire," he said in Seoul.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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