SEOUL — Washington’s top diplomat arrived in the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas to gaze on the North for himself Friday, a day after he declared 20 years of efforts to denuclearise it had failed.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Asia for his first foray into crisis management, and was to hold talks with South Korea’s acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn later, after China challenged him to come up with a new way to confront the North Korean nuclear stand-off.
Tillerson landed at Osan air base in South Korea from Japan and transferred to a Blackhawk helicopter for his trip to the DMZ, where he met the commander of the 28,000 US troops stationed in the South to defend the country.
He vowed in Tokyo on Thursday to press Beijing to rein in its neighbour but, speaking after meeting Japanese officials, offered no new details of his plan to defuse the tension posed by Pyongyang’s recent ballistic missile tests.
He warned that past policies and punishments have had virtually no effect on Pyongyang’s ambitions and that a new course was needed.
"I think it’s important to recognise that the diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearisation have failed," he said.
On Saturday Tillerson will head to China to press the country to back tougher sanctions -- but Beijing has been infuriated by the deployment of a US missile defence system to the South.
"In the face of the ever-escalating threat it is clear that a new approach is required," Tillerson said.
And he reiterated Washington’s vow to back key regional allies Japan and South Korea in the event of attack.
"The US commitment to the defence of Japan and its other treaty allies through the full range of our military capabilities is unwavering," he promised.
US President Donald Trump stirred concern in the region during his White House campaign by suggesting allies like Japan and South Korea need to do more to defend themselves.
But since his victory he has twice met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and has been careful to offer complete support, as Tillerson reiterated.
US officials have been spooked by North Korea’s accelerating progress towards building an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten US mainland cities.
Beijing shares US concerns over Pyongyang’s attempts to build an arsenal of nuclear devices, but has also blamed Washington for escalating tensions.
The issue is made more complicated by the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea.
Washington and Seoul say it is for purely defensive purposes, but Beijing fears it could undermine its own nuclear deterrent and has reacted with fury, imposing a series of measures seen as economic retaliation in the South.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing Thursday that Beijing stood by its call for a halt to joint US-South Korean exercises, to lower tensions.
"If the US or another country has a better plan, a better proposal, they can bring it out," she said. — AFP