Military action by the United States against nuclear-armed North Korea is an “option on the table” if the threat from the rogue regime escalates, Washington’s top diplomat Rex Tillerson said Friday.
The strong comments from the secretary of state, in Asia for his first foray into crisis management, appear to signal a sea change in American policy towards the isolated country.
Tillerson’s tour comes after a missile launch last week that Pyongyang described as a drill for an attack on US bases in Japan.
The US has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea to defend it from the North, but the capital Seoul is within range of Pyongyang’s artillery and analysts believe any conflict could risk rapid escalation and heavy casualties.
Even so, Tillerson announced the end of United States’ “strategic patience” — the stance of the previous administration under Barack Obama.
Under the earlier policy, the US ruled out diplomatic engagement with the North until it made a tangible commitment to denuclearization, hoping that internal stresses in the isolated country would bring about change.
“We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson told reporters at a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se.
“Certainly we do not want to, for things to get to military conflict,” he said. “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, then, that option’s on the table.”
But in separate remarks Russia’s deputy foreign minister called for an end to a “vicious circle” of tough US reactions to nuclear tests by Pyongyang, which in turn further escalate tensions on the peninsula.
“We suggest looking at the situation in a multi-dimensional way in order to break the vicious circle of tensions,” Igor Morgulov told Japan’s JiJi Press in an interview posted on the foreign ministry’s site Friday.
North Korea has a long-standing ambition to be recognized as a nuclear power, saying it needs to be able to defend itself, and conducted its first underground atomic test in 2006, in the teeth of global opposition.
Four more test blasts have followed, two of them last year.