US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reached Seoul on the second leg of a six-day sweep of Japan, South Korea and China, a nuclear hotspot gripped by high tensions following North Korea’s testing of missiles last week, on his first overseas visit since being appointed to the post.
As North Korea fired four missiles in quick succession, which splashed not far from the coast of Japan, the nuclear and military threat posed provoked the neighbouring countries to forge a plan on how best to confront a defiant Pyongyang and slow or halt its move to launch a nuclear strike.
North Korea’s military had launched an unprecedented 21 ballistic missiles in 2016 and set off two nuclear detonations. It has launched five missiles in the first 69 days of this year, making the region a potential nuclear flashpoint.
Mr Tillerson’s first stop was Tokyo from where he flew to South Korea on a trip that is expected to throw up some clues to his foreign policy towards Asia. Seen widely as a level-headed man, Mr Tillerson has so far not spoken in public about his foreign policy outlook or strategy under the Donald Trump administration and studiously declined to answer media questions on the issue.
Forging a different approach
In both Tokyo and Seoul, the US top diplomat told the media that Washington is in search of a “new approach” for North Korea after what he described as two decades of failed efforts to denuclearize the country. In Tokyo on March 17, Mr Tillerson said two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including a period when the US provided North Korea with $1.35 billion in assistance “to take a different pathway”, had come to nothing, an apparent dig at previous President Barrack Obama’s policy of “patience and engagement” with North Korea.
“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,” he told a news conference, his first as Secretary of State since assuming the post 50 days ago.
In South Korea, Mr Tillerson will visit the heavily fortified border with North Korea, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), before meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn who is also acting president.
Mr Tillerson did not elaborate what his “new approach” to North Korea would be, but area analysts believe he would have two primary objectives on this visit: (1) to reiterate Washington’s allies in the region that America has their support and security shield in the face of an ever-aggressive North Korean and(2) to prod China to use its influence to North Korea to bring down the tensions by putting a hold on its nuclear testing programme.
Soon after North Korea’s latest testing of the missiles, the US immediately sent an anti-missile defence system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to South Korea. However, the action not only angered China which believes it upsets its own defence set-up but sparked protests within South Korea which is in the grip of political turmoil following the sacking of its President Park Guen-hye by the country’s court for graft. One of the reasons why China is firmly opposed to deployment of THAAD in South Korea is that it believes the powerful radar of the U.S. missile defence shield uses to track missiles launched by North Korea can also look deep into China.
Mr Tillerson’s three-nation visit is expected to explore options for dealing with the challenges posed by North Korea. There are mainly three options: will the US choose direct engagement with North Korean and its young leader Kim Jong-Un? Will it impose new sanctions against North Korea or will it go for a pre-emptive strike to prevent North Korea’s nuclear programme.? U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had told the U.N. Security Council recently that “all options are on the table” for the Trump administration’s dealings with North Korea. She, however, did not elaborate.
What could be complicating his mission are China’s response to THAAD and the political situation in South Korea which goes to fresh Presidential elections in 60 days.
The US will have to wait for a new government in Seoul to try and coordinate their policies and possibly a joint approach to North Korea.
Washington has taken efforts to assure China that the deployment of THAAD in South Korea is not meant to be a threat to Beijing and is intended to only counter the threat from Pyongyang. “We’ve been very clear in our conversations with China that this is not meant to be a threat. Not a threat to them or any other power in the region. It is a defensive system,” Mark Toner, the State Department’s acting spokesperson, has told reporters.
China visit: What’s on agenda?
In China, Mr Tillerson is expected to convey to the Chinese leadership that the Donald Trump administration is keen on pursuing a constructive relationship with Beijing while remaining firm to ensure that China abides by international rules and that trade between the two countries is not eschewed in favour or disfavour of any side unfairly and conducted on a level playing field. He is also likely to sound out how China could give more opportunities for U.S. firms to export goods and services to that country.
The U.S. would like to see Japan, South Korea and China join international efforts to confront North Korea but the fractious relationships among the countries marred by deep distrust and suspicion following Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula and China in during the World War II make these efforts challenging. South Koreans are bitter about the treatment of thousands of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese occupation forces. Besides, Japan has territorial issues with both South Korea and China. It is this medley of factors that has for decades stymied repeated U.S. efforts to aggressively block North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
China is North Korea’s only major ally and trading partner, but has stepped up its economic pressure on Pyongyang in response to its nuclear tests. However, ties between China and North Korea are at a low now because of the repeated military tests by Pyongyang. While China does not want North Korea to do anything that brings the US in a much greater military role in the region, it also believes that pushing North Korea too hard will lead the latter into collapse.
Sanctions by the United Nations against North Korea after the latter’s first nuclear test in 2006 may have cut the country from much of the rest of the world economy but done little to halt the country’s advances.
(Pallab Bhattacharya contributed inputs for this article)