Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered a sobering assessment about the possibility of war with North Korea, saying advances in that country’s nuclear program meant the situation was “very tenuous.”
“We have to recognize that that threat is growing and if North Korea does not choose the pathway of engagement, of discussion, negotiations, then they themselves will trigger an option,” Tillerson told reporters on Tuesday night, shortly before North Korea resumed talks with Seoul on joining next month’s Olympic Games in South Korea.
“We’re at a very tenuous stage in terms of how far North Korea has taken their program,” he said.
Tillerson spoke in Vancouver, where top diplomats from 20 nations gathered to explore new ways to enforce sanctions and choke off North Korea’s economy. The meeting came at a time of heightened anxiety over the threat of war, a feeling that was exacerbated last weekend when officials in Hawaii erroneously sent out a warning that a ballistic missile was heading toward the islands.
In his remarks, Tillerson rejected any proposal calling for a “freeze” on U.S.-South Korean military exercises in order to get talks started, a recommendation repeatedly made by China and Russia. Kim Jong Un’s government has said its weapons program is essential to its survival and has repeatedly said the U.S.’s joint drills with South Korea threaten it.
Tillerson declined to comment on the possibility of a limited pre-emptive strike against North Korea, and also wouldn’t address an interview with the Wall Street Journal published last week in which U.S. President Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d spoken with Kim.
“When we get into who’s talking to who and what was said, if we want that to be made known or made public, we will announce it,” he said. At the same time, he again called on Pyongyang to come to talks on dismantling its nuclear program.
“The North Koreans know our channels are open and they know where to find us,” he said, later adding: “It’s time to talk, but they have to take the step that says they want to talk.”
Trump has taken credit for the resumption of talks between Pyongyang and Seoul, which took place again on Wednesday. Those discussions have been limited to planning for North Korea to send a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Those talks, initially heralded as a breakthrough and a way to ease tensions, are causing new strains. North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency warned Sunday that an effort by South Korea to link reconciliation to denuclearization were “ill-boding” and risked “chilling the atmosphere.” The two nations, which are still technically at war, have agreed to hold military talks and further high-level dialogues.
There’s also some division among the allies. Japan, for example, has been wary of any rapprochement with North Korea, wanting to keep talks focused only on the nuclear issue. It has portrayed ongoing talks between North and South Korea about next month’s Winter Olympics as a transparent effort to buy time to keep working on its nuclear weapons.
“In any case, what we should have in mind is that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs, even as we speak, and we should not be naïve about their intent,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said.
Tuesday’s discussions were conceived by the U.S. primarily as a show of unity as it seeks to drive North Korea further into isolation and get it to negotiate away its nuclear program. Yet divisions were apparent from the start, with the organizers declining to invite Russia and China, the two nations that maintain the strongest economic ties with the North.
One focus of the discussions was maritime interdiction -- stopping ship-to-ship oil transfers and keeping vessels from bringing goods to and from North Korea. Officials said that may include getting the United Nations to block port access for some ships known to be involved in that trade. The American-led pressure campaign has also sought to persuade countries to expel North Korean diplomats and cut any remaining ties to the country.
Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said that the pressure campaign against North Korea was beginning to have an effect. She deflected a question about whether Trump’s rhetorical exchanges with Kim were making matters worse.
“It is North Korea’s actions which are making us all less safe and to which we all need to respond,” she said.
The Vancouver meeting included representatives from co-host Canada, France, Japan, Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Thailand.