The Washington Post
TOKYO — The Trump administration made a clear break Thursday with diplomatic efforts to talk North Korea out of a nuclear confrontation, bringing the U.S. and its Asian allies closer to a military response than at any point in more than a decade.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that 20 years of trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program had failed and that he was visiting Asia “to exchange views on a new approach.”
Soon after Tillerson’s remarks, in a sign of mounting tensions, the North Korean Embassy held an extraordinary news conference in Beijing to blame the potential for nuclear war on the U.S. while vowing that its homegrown nuclear testing program will continue in self defense.
North Korea has amassed a huge nuclear stockpile and appears at the brink of being able to strike the U.S. mainland and American allies in Asia. The rising threat from the isolated military dictatorship has prompted the Trump administration to begin assessing its options for how to respond and serves as an early test for how the president will confront an increasingly volatile international situation.
One potential immediate response would be to strengthen existing South Korean missile capabilities or to provide Japan with new offensive missile ability. Japan’s defense chief told parliament this month that he would not rule out “first strike” capability, which would be a major departure from Japan’s postwar pacifist traditions.
The U.S. could also field the same THAAD missile-defense system in Japan that it is now installing in South Korea or take the potentially provocative stop of reinstalling American nuclear weapons at U.S. bases in South Korea. The North Korean threat could also rekindle the largely dormant idea of a domestic U.S. missile defense system.
North Korea has boasted of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and experts on Asia security generally agree that such a capability is within Pyongyang’s reach. Preventing it outright would probably require a military strike on North Korean facilities, something the U.S. has considered an option of last resort because it would almost certainly result in an attack on South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there, perhaps with chemical or biological weapons.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed,” Tillerson said.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile efforts have intensified under dictator Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011, and appear to have escalated further since Donald Trump’s election.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the U.S. and North Korea were like “two accelerating trains” on a collision course, while Premier Li Keqiang cautioned Wednesday that “tension may lead to conflict.”