Two decades of efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear ambitions have "failed", United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, as he hinted at a more hawkish "new approach" to ramp up the pressure.
"It is important to recognise that the diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearisation have failed," he said at a news conference in Tokyo yesterday, standing next to his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.
"We have had 20 years of failed approach, and that includes a period in which the US provided US$1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway."
Mr Tillerson did not disclose any details of the new approach to the reclusive state that is now the top foreign policy challenge for Washington, but he said the US will discuss this closely with allies Japan and South Korea, as well as China.
Tokyo is the first stop on Mr Tillerson's whirlwind debut tour of Asia that will take him to Seoul today and Beijing tomorrow. It comes as Asia is on edge over a hostile North Korea said to be gearing up for its sixth nuclear test.
Pyongyang has declared that its firing of four ballistic missiles last week was a dry run for a strike on US bases in Japan.
Military experts have raised the alarm over the progress of Mr Kim Jong Un's regime, which aspires to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US.
The United Nations has imposed six sets of sanctions against Pyongyang so far, including two last year, but these have had no effect. This, Mr Tillerson said, is partly due to China, which has continued to be a "major source of economic trade and activity", despite it having voted in favour of punitive measures at the UN Security Council.
China tightened the screws last month by banning coal imports from the North for the rest of this year, thus severing a vital lifeline. Mr Tillerson said he would discuss further actions that Beijing could take during his meetings in China.
Mr Kishida did not discuss Japan's specific role under this "new approach", but noted that the country is committed to assuming "larger roles and responsibilities" in the US-Japan security alliance.
He did not address a question on whether Japan was mulling over the acquisition of weapons that will allow the pacifist country to launch a pre-emptive strike in the name of defence.
Mr Tillerson also emphasised yesterday that there can be "no space" between the US, Japan and South Korea in dealing with the North, in urging Tokyo and Seoul to take "earnest and sincere efforts" to fulfil the bilateral pact on comfort women in 2015, in which Seoul agreed to take action over comfort women statues in exchange for an apology and compensation from Tokyo.
Japan recalled its Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine in January over a comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese Consulate-General in Busan.
Separately, Mr Tillerson met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for an hour yesterday, and the two leaders agreed that it was necessary for the US to maintain its deterrence in the region. The US has begun deploying its anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system in South Korea. They also discussed the situation in the East and South China seas, where Beijing has been increasingly assertive.
Chinese Coast Guard ships have repeatedly entered waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, which Japan administers, in the East China Sea. And in the South China Sea, Beijing has been building artificial islands on reefs it occupies and placing military facilities on them.
The leaders said they will deepen cooperation with Asean countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as with India and Australia, for regional maritime peace.
Tillerson in talks with Kishida in Tokyo. http://str.sg/47iS