Rex Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State, pauses while speaking during a news conference after a meeting on strategies to combat transnational criminal organizations at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S.(Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Tillerson Presses Russia, China for Continuing North Korean Ties

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called out Russia and China at the UN for giving North Korea an economic lifeline, even as the top U.S. diplomat struggled to staunch confusion over the U.S. position on conditions for talks with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Tillerson said China and Russia’s refusal to sever ties with Pyongyang raises questions about their commitment to resolving what he called America’s “greatest national security threat.” He reasserted the U.S. vow to use “all necessary measures” to defend against Kim’s efforts to perfect nuclear-armed missiles that can hit the American mainland.

But beyond the rhetoric, there were no new measures taken up by the council. And after suggesting earlier this week that the Trump administration would be open to talks with North Korea after a period of calm and without the U.S. imposing other “preconditions,” Tillerson pulled back from that formulation.

“North Korea must earn its way back to the table,” Tillerson said at the UN meeting, called by Japan to discuss a Nov. 28 missile test Kim’s regime. “The pressure campaign must, and will, continue until denuclearization is achieved. We will, in the meantime, keep our channels of communication open.”

Tillerson’s UN appearance is the latest push in the Trump administration’s effort to persuade other countries to isolate North Korea by kicking out its diplomats and cutting remaining economic links.

Russia, China

The U.S. has made clear it believes Russia and China hold the key to diplomatic success, and Tillerson called on them to go “beyond full implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions” in pressuring North Korea.

Specifically, he demanded that Russia stop allowing entry to North Korean guest workers, whose wages are sent home to help fund the regime. Moscow’s decision to keep allowing guest workers in the country “calls into question Russia’s dedication as a partner for peace,” Tillerson said.

He also said China -- North Korea’s biggest trading partner -- must cut crude oil shipments. China argues that such a move would provoke a humanitarian disaster. Tillerson said China’s refusal to stop the oil flow leads the U.S. to question its “commitment to solving an issue that has serious implications for the security of its own citizens.”

Those comments earned rebukes from Chinese and Russian diplomats.

“It is not helpful to impose on any one party the responsibility for resolving the problem,” said China’s deputy UN ambassador, Wu Haitao. “The parties should move toward each other instead of engaging in mutual blaming.”

Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya rejected Tillerson’s call for “unilateral” action outside the Security Council and said Tillerson’s claim that North Koreans were working in slave-like conditions in Russia weren’t true.

North Korea’s Ambassador Ja Song Nam defiantly told the Security Council that North Korea will continue its efforts to become a nuclear power, saying the effort is needed for his country’s self-defense and the U.S. is to blame for tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Tillerson was swift to reject that, taking the microphone one last time as the meeting wound down to say North Korea “alone must take responsibility for these tensions.”

The stakes for the meeting had only grown in recent days. North Korea said the most recent test showed it was capable of hitting the entire U.S., although Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that the regime has not yet shown it’s “a capable threat to the U.S. mainland.”

A United Nations envoy to North Korea, Jeffrey Feltman, returned from a recent trip to the country deeply worried about the prospects for bringing an end to Kim’s nuclear weapons program. And on Thursday, President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the U.S. “would love to have his help on North Korea” because right now, “Russia is not helping.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s discussed North Korea while golfing with Trump, told the Atlantic magazine this week that he believes “there’s a 3-in-10 chance we use the military option” and if North Korea again tests a nuclear bomb “I would say 70 percent.”

In opening Friday’s Security Council session, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the world to start communicating with North Korea to reduce the risk of “miscalculation or misunderstanding.”

“It is time to immediately re-establish and strengthen communication channels, including inter-Korean and military-to-military channels,” Guterres said. “This is critical to lower the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding and reduce tensions in the region.”

Of the 15 nations in the Security Council, only a handful -- not including Russia or China -- sent their foreign ministers to attend the event.

Parsing ‘Preconditions’

Tillerson sought to clarify the administration’s stance on talks with Kim’s regime after statements this week that appeared contradictory. He affirmed that the U.S. was willing to speak with North Korea, but only if the world sees a “sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior.”

That was a narrower stance than one he put forward at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Dec. 12 where he said he was ready for talks with North Korea “without preconditions,” a phrase that in the past has signaled a willingness for open-ended negotiations that don’t focus only on the nuclear issue.

After Tillerson’s Atlantic Council remarks, the White House tamped down such expectations, saying in a statement later that evening that the administration’s stance hadn’t changed. It said North Korea’s actions “are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea."

“They know where the door is; they know where to walk through that door when they want to talk,” Tillerson told reporters after the Security Council meeting ended.

Trump has at times openly scoffed at Tillerson’s efforts to keep alive diplomatic prospects in dealing with North Korea. Earlier this year he tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” his pejorative for Kim.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.