New approach needed to denuclearise North Korea: Top US diplomat Rex Tillerson

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida before their meeting at the foreign ministry's Iikura guest house in Tokyo, Japan.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida before their meeting at the foreign ministry's Iikura guest house in Tokyo, Japan.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday (March 16) said two decades of diplomacy and other efforts have failed to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, as he called for a "new approach" to the pariah state.

Speaking in Tokyo next to Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the former oil executive with no foreign policy experience said: "It’s 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.

"So we have 20 years of failed approach, and that includes a period in which the United States provided US$1.35 billion (S$1.9 billion) in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway."

Japan is the first stop of Mr Tillerson’s debut Asian tour, and he stressed the need for a "new approach" that is to be discussed with allies Japan and South Korea, as well as China.

North Korea is on the top of the agenda of Mr Tillerson’s visit to Asia, which will take him to Seoul on Friday and Beijing on Saturday.

Pyongyang is said to be gearing up for yet another nuclear test, and has declared that a missile test last week was a dry run for a strike on American bases in Japan. 

The Kim Jong Un regime aspires to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the US.

"China is a major source of economic trade and activity with North Korea.  China has long stated their policy that they too want a denuclearised North Korea.  China has voted in favour of (UN Security Council resolutions)," Mr Tillerson said. "We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking."

But Mr Tillerson did not reveal any details of what this "new approach" entails for the US and its allies. The US is said to be contemplating secondary sanctions on Chinese firms that are complicit in funding the North Korean regime.

Mr Kishida, too, did not address a question on whether Japan is considering the acquisition of weapons that allow the pacifist country to launch a pre-emptive strike – though he referred to Japan’s commitment to "assume larger roles and responsibilities" in the US-Japan security alliance.

Further, Mr Tillerson stressed that trilateral cooperation among the US, Japan and South Korea is key in meeting the North Korea threat, and urged both sides to take "earnest and sincere efforts" to meet their commitments under a landmark comfort women deal reached in 2015.

"I appreciate how painful dealing with such historic issues are for both sides and the US maintains its support, though, of the agreement that has been reached between Japan and South Korea to address the issue," he said. 

Urging both countries to come to a "rapid conclusion" of the agreement, he said: "It is important to the trilateral relationship ... that we maintain a strong alliance in which there is no space between us, particularly as it comes to dealing with the threats (of North Korea)."

Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine in January, in protest against a comfort women statue erected in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan, and there is still no sign of when he will return.

Mr Kishida said that Japan will "patiently and persistently" work together with South Korean leaders, regardless of party stripes, to seek the "steadfast implementation" of the pact.

Mr Tillerson meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later on Thursday.