SEOUL - United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday (March 17) military action against North Korea is an option if push comes to shove, as he signalled that the long-maintained US policy of "strategic patience" with the nuclear-armed state is over.
"Certainly we do not want things to get to military conflict, but if they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, then that option is on the table," he said at a joint press conference with South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se on Friday (March 17).
“The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.”
“Strategic patience” is the term given to the US policy under former President Barack Obama when the United States ruled out engaging the North until it made a tangible commitment to denuclearisation, hoping that internal stresses would bring about change.
Mr Tillerson is in Seoul as part of a three-country Asia tour that also includes Japan and China, amid heightened tension in the Korean Peninsula due to repeated provocations including ballistic and nuclear missile tests from North Korea.
His remarks on Friday came a day after he said in Tokyo that 20 years of efforts to denuclearise the North had “failed” and promised a new approach.
Allowing the North to retain its present level of weapons technology was not appropriate, Mr Tillerson said in Seoul.
“That would leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat.”
The United Nations has imposed multiple sets of sanctions on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programmes, but its main diplomatic protector and trade partner China is accused of not fully enforcing them.
He urged China and other friends of North Korea to fully implement sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council.
“I don’t believe we have ever fully achieved the maximum level of action that can be taken under the UN Security Council resolution with full participation of all countries.
"We know that other nations can take actions," he said.
Beijing shares US concerns over Pyongyang’s attempts to build an arsenal of nuclear devices, but has also blamed Washington for escalating tensions.
The issue is made more complicated by the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system to South Korea.
Washington and Seoul say it is for purely defensive purposes, but Beijing fears it could undermine its own nuclear deterrent and has reacted with fury, imposing a series of measures seen as economic retaliation in the South.
Mr Tillerson on Friday urged China to refrain from economic retaliation against South Korea.
Mr Yun said South Korea is committed to Thaad deployment even with presidential elections due on May 9 after the recent impeachment of President Park Geun Hye.
"Our security policy will remain consistent regardless of which government it is," he said.
Mr Tillerson had arrived from Japan Friday morning at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, and headed straight for the Demilitarised Zone at the border of the two Koreas.
He reportedly received a briefing at the Panmunjom truce village and had lunch with troops at Camp Bonifas.
He will depart for Beijing Saturday morning.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FROM AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE