US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (l.) is welcomed by his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida (r.) at the Iikura Guesthouse in Tokyo on March 16, 2017. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
By Meg Wagner
The price for ‘behaving very badly’?
The U.S. may take pre-emptive military action against North Korea if it continues to ramp up its nuclear weapons program, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Friday from South Korea.
The U.S.’s “policy of strategic patience” toward North Korea is over, Tillerson continued, outlining a harder stance against the Asian nation. Under his “new approach,” the U.S. will refuse talks with Pyongyang unless it stops developing nuclear weapons — which has been the standard since 2009 when North Korea walked out of anti-nuke negotiations.
"If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action then that option is on the table," Tillerson said at a news conference when asked about the possibility of military involvement.
The Secretary of State, a former oil executive with no previous experience in international diplomacy, stressed that the U.S. doesn’t want conflict — "we have many, many steps we can take before we get to" military action, Tillerson said — but he left open the possibility.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump took a harsher tone in condemning North Korea.
“North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” he tweeted on Friday morning.
Stalled talks and continued nuclear tests
While Tillerson’s refusal to restart talks with North Korea maintains standard U.S. policy on the matter, his suggestion that America consider military action against the rogue nation is risky break from status quo.
U.S. officials and Korea experts have long warned that pre-emptive military action against North Korea could incite a regional war. North Korea, if provoked, could lash out against Japan and South Korea — potentially causing mass casualties in America's two closest allies in the region. The tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in those two countries could be among the targets.
The specifics of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are murky, since the country is notoriously secretive. It signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons — an international compact designed to encourage nuclear disarmament worldwide — in 1985, but withdrew in 2003, arguing that it needed “freedom” from the “binding” agreement to develop peaceful nuclear technology.
Three months after dropping out of the anti-nuke pact, North Korea admitted to having at least one nuclear weapon. Since then, the country has claimed it has conducted five successful nuclear tests, the first in 2006 and the latest in September 2016.
In 2003, the Bush administration entered into a series of negotiations with North Korea and four other countries, dubbed the Six Party Talks, aimed at deescalating the nuclear situation. That coalition included Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China, which served as the host country. The talks had some successes, and ended with North Korea signing a pact to disable its nuclear facilities. But they later refused international inspection of the site, negating the talks’ progress.
The negotiations ground to a halt in 2009 when North Korea abruptly withdrew. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced that his administration would not resume them until North Korea re-committed to denuclearization and vowed to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction.
"The North Koreans have a choice: continued and further isolation or benefits for returning to the six-party talks and dismantling their nuclear weapons program," Stephen Bosworth, a special envoy to the president, said at the time.
Afterward, the U.S. increased sanctions against North Korea in the hope of economically pressuring the country into relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. South Korea and Japan have taken a similar approach, but China — North Korea’s longtime ally — has urged the former six-nation coalition to resume peace talks instead.
North Korea quickly and aggressively responds
North Korea staged a rare press conference immediately after Tillerson’s comments at which its leaders doubled down on their commitment to developing nuclear technology — and aggressively blamed a possible nuclear war on the U.S.
“The situation is already on the brink of nuclear war," Pak Myong Ho, the chargé d'affaires at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, said. He insisted that North Korea's growing nuclear power is for peaceful purposes, and insisted that the nation would not use the powers for war.
The alleged September 2016 nuclear test marked the country’s biggest ever. Some nuclear nonproliferation professors claimed the blast had an explosive yield of more than 20 kilotons, making it more powerful than the 10-kiloton bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Experts said that North Korea is at least five years away from developing a missile that could reach the United States — but a shorter trip to Japan or South Korea is more plausible.
Japan appears to be preparing for the worst: The nation held its first civilian missile attack drill Friday. About 100 people in the city of Oga took shelter and located their emergency kits as sirens blared. The drill came only a week after North Korea launched four non-nuclear missiles into the ocean just off of Japan’s coast.
Tensions between North and South Korea, have run even higher than the historical norm since the apparent assassination of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On Monday, North Korea blamed South Korea for that attempt, which occurred in Malaysia in February. Many — including top South Korean officials — have speculated that North Korean agents were actually behind the killing.
"From A to Z, this case is the product of reckless moves of the United States and South Korean authorities," North Korea's deputy ambassador to the U.N., Kim In Ryong, said — adding that South Korea’s allegations that North Korea carried out the attack were “groundless.”