The Donald Trump administration on Wednesday said that it aimed to push North Korea into dismantling its nuclear and missile programs through tougher international sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and remained open to negotiations to bring that about. The US stance, which appeared to signal a willingness to exhaust non-military avenues despite repeated warnings that "all options are on the table," came in a statement following an unusual White House-hosted briefing for the entire US Senate followed by a briefing to the House of Representatives.
The statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats described North Korea as "an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority." North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting President Donald Trump, who has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile - a capability experts say Pyongyang could have some time after 2020.
"The President’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners," the statement said.
"The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies." US lawmakers have been seeking a clear White House strategy following repeated North Korean missile tests and fears it could conduct a sixth nuclear bomb test. But some lawmakers on both sides went away dissatisfied.
While the administration has said military strikes remain an option, officials have stressed tougher sanctions as the key strategy given the risks of massive North Korean retaliation — essentially representing a continuation of the policy of former President Barack Obama's administration, which failed to slow Pyongyang's weapons programs.
Democratic Senator Christopher Coons told reporters after the White House briefing that military options were discussed.
"It was a sobering briefing in which it was clear just how much thought and planning was going into preparing military options, if called for, and a diplomatic strategy that strikes me as clear-eyed and well proportioned," Coons said.
Tillerson will chair a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday that is expected to discuss tougher sanctions, which US officials say could include an oil embargo, banning North Korea's airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese and other foreign banks doing business with Pyongyang.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said another means of diplomatic pressure would be for nations to close North Korean missions and to ostracise North Korea in international organisations.
China objects to North Korea's weapons development and has called for a return to international negotiations, but US officials have said Washington sees no value in talks until Pyongyang shows it is serious about denuclearisation.
'A wild dream'
Earlier on Wednesday, North Korea's Foreign Ministry called US attempts to make Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons through military threats and sanctions "a wild dream" and like "sweeping the sea with a broom." The administration is hoping for greater Chinese cooperation after a summit between President Xi Jinping and Trump last month, and a senior White House official said Beijing now appeared to acknowledge North Korea as a threat to China too.
"You have seen some early indications of China doing a better job enforcing existing UN sanctions on North Korea," the official said, adding there had also been a clear effort to communicate to North Korea in the Chinese press "that its nuclear tests, missile tests, the existence of these programs can't be tolerated."
China has been angered, however, by US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defence system in South Korea, complaining that its radar can see deep into China and undermines its security.
The top US commander in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, told Congress on Wednesday the system would be operational "in coming days" and suggested Beijing should focus on influencing North Korea rather than worrying about a purely defensive system.
The front-runner in South Korea's May 9 presidential election has called for a delay in THAAD deployment, saying the new Seoul administration should make a decision after gathering public opinion and more talks with Washington.
Harris said he believed Pyongyang's threats needed to be taken seriously and that the United States may also need to strengthen missile defences in Hawaii.
He said these were sufficient for now but could one day be overwhelmed, and suggested studying stationing new radar there as well as interceptors to knock out any incoming North Korean missiles.
"I don't share your confidence that North Korea is not going to attack either South Korea, or Japan, or the United States ... once they have the capability," Harris told one lawmaker.
US officials have warned that a conflict with North Korea could have a devastating effect on ally South Korea and US troops based there, a point Pyongyang underscored by a big live-fire exercise on Tuesday to mark the foundation of its military.Harris conceded that North Korean retaliation to any US strikes could cause many casualties, but added that there was the risk "of a lot more Koreans and Japanese and Americans dying if North Korea achieves its nuclear aims and does what (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) has said it’s going to do."
North Korea has vowed to strike the United States and its Asian allies at the first sign of any attack on its territory.
In a show of force, the United States is sending the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula, where it will join the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine that docked in South Korea on Tuesday. South Korea's navy has said it will hold drills with the US strike group.
Harris said the carrier was in the Philippine Sea, within two hours' striking distance of North Korea if need be.
A look at US' THAAD anti-missile system, and why S. Korea has misgivings about it
Amid alarm over North Korea's expanding nuclear weapons and missile arsenal, Washington and Seoul are speeding ahead with the installment of an advanced US anti-missile system in South Korea to cope with the growing threats.
Despite the seemingly straightforward purpose, the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, remains a controversial topic in South Korea and even has become an issue in the upcoming presidential election. Here's a look at how THAAD works and why it became a debated issue in South Korea.
System protects against mid-range missiles
A THAAD battery, including the one currently being installed in southern South Korea, consists of six truck-mounted launchers that can fire up to 48 interceptor missiles. There is also fire control and communication equipment and a powerful X-band radar officially known as AN/TPY-2. THAAD is designed to take out incoming targets in midflight at relatively high altitudes and military experts say the system could provide protection against North Korea's midrange missiles. Some experts believe South Korea will eventually need more THAAD systems to cover a broader part of its territory if it wants to counter recent efforts by the North to beef up its arsenal of solid-fuel midrange missiles that can be fired from mobile launchers and submarines.
Unclear when system will be operational
The United States and South Korea began installing THAAD last month and South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Wednesday that key parts, including six launchers, interceptor missiles and a radar, have been deployed. South Korea's Defense Ministry confirmed there was progress in the system's installment, but didn't specify which parts of THAAD were deployed. The ministry said Seoul and Washington have been pushing to get THAAD operating soon.
China concerned over THAAD radar
The plan to deploy THAAD has angered North Korea as well as China, which sees the system as a security threat despite reassurances that the system is purely defensive. South Korea has raised suspicions that China is retaliating against plans for THAAD by limiting Chinese tour group visits to South Korea, whose economy is increasingly dependent on Chinese tourism and demand for its industrial products. China says that THAAD's radar can be reconfigured to peer deep into its territory and monitor its flights and missile launches. Military experts outside of China say Beijing's worries are exaggerated and THAAD in South Korea wouldn't meaningfully improve US monitoring ability when Washington already watches Chinese missile launches through radar systems installed in Qatar, Taiwan and Japan. They say there's little reason to reconfigure the THAAD radar in South Korea to a "forward-based mode" when that would disable the system from intercepting incoming missiles.
Locals worried about system safety
Residents in the rural South Korean town of Seongju, where the first THAAD battery will sit in a converted golf course, have expressed worries about rumored health hazards linked to the system's radar. South Korea's Defense Ministry says such worries are groundless and no such issues have been reported at THAAD sites in other countries.
Issue stoking debate on campaign trail
South Korean presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in has vowed to reconsider the deployment if he wins the 9 May election, saying that the country should consider relations with China. He says that the security benefits of THAAD would be curtailed by worsened relations with the country's biggest trading partner. His camp issued a statement Wednesday denouncing the installment and saying public opinion was being ignored. Moon's closest competitor, Ahn Cheol-soo, has voiced support for THAAD deployment, but has also said he would be willing to ask the US to withdraw the system of China agrees to aggressively pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
With inputs from the Associated Press and Reuters
Updated Date: Apr 27, 2017 09:39 AM