Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on other nations to cut diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea, as he spelled out a renewed U.S. effort to compel the country’s regime to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs after decades of defiance.
Speaking before the United Nations Security Council for the first time as the top U.S. diplomat, Tillerson proposed three ways to pressure North Korea: UN member states should “fully implement” existing sanctions against North Korea, downgrade or suspend diplomatic ties with the country and increase its financial isolation with new and tighter sanctions.
“North Korea exploits its diplomatic privileges to fund its illicit nuclear and missile technology programs, and constraining its diplomatic activity will cut off the flow of needed resources,” Tillerson said Friday. Normal ties with the country “are simply not acceptable,” he added, urging economic sanctions against nations that do business with North Korea.
The Security Council meeting caps a flurry of U.S. activity this week aimed at injecting urgency into resolving the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which are banned under UN resolutions. President Donald Trump has said he’s fed up with decades of failure by U.S. presidents from both parties to stop the program. He’s called on China to rein in its neighbor and sent an aircraft carrier battle group and nuclear submarine to the region.
Tillerson told the Security Council that all of its members must share responsibility, saying those that don’t enforce existing sanctions “fully discredit this body.” He demanded countries suspend North Korean imports, particularly coal, and stop accepting North Korean guest workers.
China and Russia
Those were references to China, which accounts for the vast majority of trade with North Korea, and Russia, which allows North Korean workers in cities and towns near its border with the country in the Far East.
The response from some other nations suggested the U.S. still has a long way to go to persuade them to get on board with its new initiative. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi again offered his country’s proposal that the U.S. suspend military drills with South Korea in exchange for the North suspending its nuclear and missile programs. The U.S. rejects that idea.
Wang also delivered a pointed rebuke to Trump, who said in an interview with Reuters Thursday that a “major conflict” with North Korea was possible if diplomatic solutions fail.
China “strongly urges all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid provocative rhetoric or actions that will lead to miscalculation,” Wang said. He added that the key to solving the North Korea nuclear problem “does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side.”
Tillerson said the U.S. goal isn’t to overthrow Kim Jong Un’s regime but ruled out talks unless the North Korean leader takes “concrete steps to reduce threat that illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies.” As the meeting concluded, Tillerson reiterated that the U.S. wouldn’t agree to talks unless North Korea abides by existing Security Council resolutions.
“The takeaway from today’s Security Council ministerial meeting is that Secretary Tillerson is trying to take sanctions that exist on paper and turn them in into steel bars that block North Korea from proliferating,” Daniel Russell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who’s now a diplomat in residence at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in an interview. “What I interpret his message to be is a consciousness-raising effort and a spine-stiffening effort.”
For Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief, his debut at the UN reflected his increasing willingness to serve as the public face of UN diplomacy. In the early weeks of the Trump administration, Tillerson rarely spoke out while Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who’s Trump’s ambassador to the UN, was speaking and tweeting frequently prodigiously.
On Friday, as usual when a secretary of state visits the UN, Tillerson did the talking in the Security Council while Haley sat behind him.