The United States is set to widen and tighten economic sanctions to pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missile programme and return to dialogue, top officials said in Washington.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a special meeting of the United Nations (UN) Security Council on North Korea today to muster support for the effort to stop Pyongyang's nuclear missile programme.
In an unusual move, Mr Tillerson and security officials briefed the entire Senate and House separately on Wednesday on the North Korea issue. In a joint statement with Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Mr Tillerson said: "We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure… in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue."
While the US was open to talks to achieve "the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula", they said it also "remains prepared to defend ourselves and our allies".
Separately, the US and South Korea yesterday agreed to take quick action against North Korea in the event of further provocation after South Korean national security adviser Kim Kwan Jin spoke with his US counterpart, Mr H.R. McMaster.
OPENING THE DOOR FOR DIALOGUE
All options are on the table. We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees.
Admiral Harry Harris, who heads US Pacific Command
South Korea's presidential office said: "The two sides pledged, in the event of additional strategic provocation by the North, to swiftly take punitive measures, including a new UN Security Council resolution that is unbearable for the North."
The US' indication that it is willing to adopt non-military means to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue came as the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier approached Korean waters. On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was in Berlin on a visit, said the UN Security Council's resolutions should be carried out in a comprehensive manner, and the parties should not implement them according to only their own needs, Xinhua reported.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June Hyuck said the country shared the US stance that "the door for dialogue will open if North Korea sincerely moves towards denuclearisation".
The two front runners for South Korea's May 9 presidential election, Mr Moon Jae In of the liberal Democratic Party and Mr Ahn Cheol Soo of the left-centrist People's Party, also pledged to do more to address the nuclear issue if elected.
Mr Ahn said the Trump administration's emphasis on diplomacy would "foster a positive environment" for the next government to take an active role in resolving the issue, while Mr Moon said South Korea needs to "take the lead" to avoid being relegated to a spectator.
Analysts say there is much scope for greater implementation of sanctions against Pyongyang. "There seems to be a consensus among senators that no US military moves are imminent. Trump has little option but to give diplomacy a chance," Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy told The Straits Times over e-mail.
Mr Trump hopes sanctions by Beijing would deter Pyongyang from further provocation, he said.
Senate foreign relations committee member Chris Coons, a Democrat, told reporters the briefing was "sobering" and it "was clear just how much thought and planning is going into military options, if called for".
He added that Mr Trump was developing a "diplomatic strategy that strikes me as clear-eyed and well-proportioned to the threat".
• Additional reporting by Chang May Choon and Goh Sui Noi