SEOUL (The Straits Times/ANN) - Top US diplomat says policy of strategic patience adopted during Obama era is over.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that military action against North Korea is an option if push comes to shove, as he declared Washington's policy of "strategic patience" over.
"Certainly we do not want things to get to military conflict, but if they (North Korea) elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, then that option is on the table," he said yesterday in a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung Se.
Tillerson was in Seoul, the second leg of a three-stop Asian tour that includes Tokyo and Beijing, amid rising tension on the Korean peninsula following Pyongyang's repeated nuclear and missile tests.
Noting that years of trying to resolve the North's nuclear issue have failed to produce any result, he said: "The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table."
The policy of strategic patience was adopted by the Barack Obama administration from 2009 to January this year. Under this policy, Washington would not engage Pyongyang unless its leadership made a commitment to end its nuclear programme.
But North Korea under Kim Jong Un has so far shown resilience to toughened sanctions by the United Nations Security Council for its repeated nuclear tests - two of them last year - and seems determined to become a nuclear state.
Tillerson, who also met Acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn, said the United States will continue to exert pressure on North Korea and urged other countries, including friends of the North, to join in the efforts.
US ally Japan launched a new spy satellite yesterday, partly to keep an eye on North Korea, which fired four ballistic missiles on March 6. Pyongyang said they were a dry run for a strike on US bases in Japan.
Tillerson also reaffirmed the US' iron-clad commitment to the defence of South Korea, and said the US will continue to develop a "comprehensive set of capabilities" to counter the North's missile threats.
His comments drew mixed reactions from South Korean parties.
The ruling Liberty Korea Party and the splinter Bareun Party welcomed his commitment to curbing North Korea and strengthening the US-South Korea alliance.
But the main opposition Democratic Party expressed concern over measures that can lead to military tension, arguing that sanctions and dialogue must go together.
Analysts said it remains to be seen if the US will follow up with more concrete military measures, like deploying more strategic assets to South Korea or increasing its missile defence capability.
Dr Go Myong Hyun of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank said the new Donald Trump administration could also play a more active role in pushing China to rein in North Korea.
In a tweet last night, Trump said the North has "been 'playing' the United States for years" and "China has done little to help!".
Said Dr Go: "Tillerson is implying the Trump administration's policy towards North Korea will not be passive, but what does that really mean? We'll have to wait and see."