Tillerson Seeks to Boost Pressure on North Korea at UN Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will use his first visit to the UN Security Council to try to show North Korea that the world is united against its ambition of developing nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them.

But in a sign of how limited the options are for dealing with Pyongyang, no new resolution or economic sanctions are expected to be considered at the Friday meeting, which Tillerson will chair.

The gathering 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, both banned under United Nations 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.

Trump said he sees the chance of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea over its nuclear program, though he prefers a diplomatic solution, according to an interview with Reuters.

In the UN meeting, Tillerson is expected to take a less bellicose posture, underscoring the difficulty of confronting an economically and politically isolated country that has the power to inflict heavy casualties on Seoul, just 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of its border.

“The important thing is not to ratchet up threats and let that substitute for having a strategy,” said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who oversaw nonproliferation on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council. “We need fresh thinking. The core to me is that this will not be solved unless the U.S. and China can overcome enough of their mutual mistrust to figure out a long-term future for Korea.”

Tillerson has signaled that direct talks with North Korea could be possible -- if Pyongyang is willing to discuss steps it can take toward giving up the nuclear program it has vowed never to abandon.

“North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority,” Tillerson said Wednesday in a joint statement with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. “The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal.”

The White House briefed lawmakers on the North Korean threat April 26 and the Pentagon’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, told lawmakers in Washington this week that the regime has shown steady progress in its missile and nuclear programs. The House may vote next week to tighten sanctions on the country.

While lawmakers from both parties agree with Trump’s view that China can do more to sway Kim Jong Un’s regime, some said the U.S. appears reluctant to push Beijing too hard. Trump has said he’s confident Beijing will act.

Preemptive Strike

“What was lost in the discussion is that they are unwilling to do anything that would put real pressure or China or use our ability to impose tariffs,” Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the administration briefing.

Trump is aware that another U.S. option -- a preemptive strike against North Korea -- should be a last resort, in large part because of the artillery Kim’s regime could unleash to devastate Seoul, Republican Senator John McCain said in an interview.

“I hope there’s a lot more to go before we have a preemptive strike,” McCain said. “They are exploring every option and the last option -- and the least desirable option -- is armed conflict.”

China cut off coal imports from North Korea earlier this year and urged both sides to show restraint. Beijing has objected to the rising U.S. military presence near the Korean peninsula, especially the installation -- still in progress -- of a land-based missile defense system known as Thaad.

Some Asia analysts are pushing for direct U.S. talks with North Korea, arguing that Washington has only limited its options by talking so tough.

‘No Options’

“Over time not only have we created a very tense situation but we’re going to be unable to do anything about North Korea’s activities and it’s going to expose how hollow our threats are,” said Joel Wit, senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Referring to a potential new North Korean nuclear test, he said, “They’re already ramping up for it, that’s obvious, and we have no options. We’re in a corner with no options, and we can’t attack them.”

The U.S. is also coming under pressure from other countries to ease off its rhetoric. After meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that he and Abe believe the situation on the Korean peninsula has “seriously deteriorated.”

“We call on all states involved in the region’s affairs to refrain from military rhetoric and seek peaceful, constructive dialogue,” Putin said.