Tillerson says America’s approach to North Korea has ‘failed’

US secretary of state discusses ‘ever-escalating threat’ on first official visit to Japan

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has sought to defuse growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula by telling Pyongyang that it "need not fear" America.

But he admitted that 20 years of diplomacy and sanctions have failed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and said “a new approach” is needed.

On his first official trip to Tokyo, America's top diplomat spoke to reporters on Thursday following a meeting with Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida.

Topping their agenda was North Korea's launch last week of a salvo of four missiles, one of which came down in waters just 320km (200 miles) off Japan's coast. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe subsequently warned that the threat from the North had "entered a new stage".


Mr Tillerson described North Korea’s weapons programmes as “dangerous and unlawful”. He said the $1.35 billion (€1.25 billion) in US aid given to the reclusive Stalinist state over the last two decades was “an encouragement to take a different pathway” but the strategy had failed.

“In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach.”

The former Exxon Mobil chief executive gave no details of what steps the US might take. But Mike Toner, spokesman for the state department, referred recently to "alternatives" to sanctions in what was interpreted as hinting at a military response.

“The continuing testing and augmenting of its weapons programme is of great concern, and it’s getting to the point where we need to do – we do need to look at other alternatives,” Mr Toner said.

Mr Tillerson's visit is being closely watched for hints at what these alternatives might be. US president Donald Trump gave a swaggering response in January to threats from North Korea that it is developing a nuclear missile that could hit the United States, saying: "It won't happen."

Rhetorical heat

He has since dialled down the rhetorical heat. Mr Tillerson seems to be continuing a long-standing US policy of trying to persuade China to exert more pressure on Pyongyang.

“We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking that would be helpful to bringing North Korea to a different attitude about its future need for nuclear weapons,” he said.

He may struggle, however, to reach a consensus on how to deal with North Korea's latest missile launches. Staunch US ally South Korea, which Mr Tillerson visits on Friday, is rudderless following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, who had been embroiled in a political scandal.

China, Mr Tillerson’s last stop, is alarmed by the prospect of war on the Korean Peninsula. China’s foreign minister warned last week that America is on a “collision course” with North Korea.

China is also infuriated by the deployment of a US missile defence system in South Korea, which it says is designed to tip the balance of military forces in Asia in America’s favour.

Beijing has repeatedly demanded that the United States stop annual military drills on the Korean Peninsula that it views as provocative. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said this week that Mr Tillerson should seek dialogue with Pyongyang instead.

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo