US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday ruled out a quick return to dialogue with North Korea, as he said new UN sanctions showed the world had run out of patience with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
Speaking to reporters at a security forum in the Philippine capital, Mr Tillerson said Washington would only consider talks if Pyongyang halted its ballistic missile programme — something the North has insisted it has no intention of doing.
“The best signal that North Korea could send that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Mr Tillerson said.
He nevertheless held out the prospect of US envoys at some point sitting down with Pyongyang’s isolated regime and avoiding the escalating threat of war.
His remarks followed a rare exchange on Sunday between the foreign ministers of the two Koreas on the sidelines of the Manila forum, during which the North’s Ri Yong-Ho showed no signs his nation had been intimidated by the latest rounds of sanctions.
In an effort to halt North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s drive to become a nuclear power, the UN Security Council on Saturday unanimously approved a US-drafted sanctions package against his nation that could cost it $1 billion a year.
The sanctions were in response to the North conducting two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month that President Kim boasted showed he could strike any part of the United States.
US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-In, spoke on the phone on Sunday and agreed the North “poses a grave and growing direct threat” to most countries around the world, according to a White House statement.
Mr Trump later took to social media to hail the vote, thanking Russia and China in a Twitter post for backing the sanctions that either could have halted with their UN veto, adding that he was “very happy and impressed with 15-0 United Nations vote on North Korea sanctions.”
Mr Tillerson, who held separate talks in Manila with foreign ministers Wang Yi of China and Sergei Lavrov of Russia on Sunday, also sought to emphasise a united stance against the North.
“It’s quite clear in terms of there being no daylight between the international community as to the expectation that North Korea will take steps to achieve all of my objectives, which is a denuclearised Korean peninsula,” he told reporters on Monday.
Mr Tillerson met with Mr Wang and Mr Lavrov as part of an annual gathering of top envoys of 26 Asia-Pacific nations plus the European Union for talks on regional security known as the ASEAN Regional Forum.
However, signalling that differences remained between the world powers on how to handle the North, Mr Wang on Sunday reiterated China’s position that sanctions alone would not solve the problem and called again for the United States to talk to the North.
“Only dialogue and negotiation is the correct way out to address the Korean peninsula issue,” he said.
Mr Tillerson on Monday insisted President Kim must first stop the missile tests, but he would not set a timeframe on when this might be possible or how long North Korea might have to refrain from testing more long-range missiles.
“We will know it when we see it,” he told reporters.
“I’m not going to give someone a specific number of days or weeks. This is really about the spirit of these talks.”
“And they can demonstrate that they are ready to sit in the spirit of finding their way forward in these talks by no longer conducting these missile tests.”
Mr Ri and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha shook hands in their brief encounter at a gala dinner on Sunday ahead of the ASEAN Regional Forum meetings.
Ms Kang urged her northern counterpart to accept Seoul’s offers of military talks to lower tensions on the divided peninsula, and for discussions on a new round of reunions for divided families, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
But Yonhap reported that Mr Ri retorted: “Given the current situation in which the South collaborates with the US to heap pressure on the North, such proposals lacked sincerity”.