Turning to diplomacy after flexing military muscle, the United States will urge the U.N. Security Council on Friday to increase economic pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, leaning on China in particular to turn the screws on its wayward ally.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his counterparts from allies Japan and South Korea and was set to chair a ministerial meeting of the U.N.’s top decision-making body. The U.S. wants to tighten the implementation of sanctions and build international resolve to isolate North Korea so it eventually disarms.
That’s a goal that has eluded U.S. administrations for two decades, and the threat is intensifying. North Korea may already be able to strike its U.S.-allied neighbours with a nuclear-tipped missile, and could have the U.S. mainland within range by the end of President Donald Trump’s first term.
WATCH: Tillerson urges U.N. to act ‘before North Korea does’
Tensions on and around the divided Korean Peninsula have been running high. In an attempt to deter North Korea from more nuclear and missile testing, the U.S. has sent a group of American warships led by an aircraft carrier to the region. North Korea this week conducted large-scale, live-fire exercises on its eastern coast.
“Right now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is under very grave tension and at a critical point,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters Friday.
However, after weeks of unusually blunt military threats, the Trump administration announced this week its policy is to exert economic and diplomatic pressure with international partners to achieve denuclearization and said it is not aiming for regime change in North Korea. Officials say, however, a military strike is still an option.
While the U.S. is calling for global action, it says the onus is on China to ramp up pressure on North Korea, its main trading partner and source of food and fuel aid. China wants North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program but is wary of destabilizing its traditional ally, on whose side it fought in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Tillerson said in an interview Thursday that Beijing has threatened to impose unilateral sanctions on North Korea if it conducts further nuclear tests. It conducted two last year and satellite imagery in recent weeks has suggested another could be imminent.
China “confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test,” Tillerson said on Fox News Channel.
Wang Yi did not answer Friday when asked about Tillerson’s assertion “that if they did conduct further nuclear tests, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own.”
Wang said China agrees to step up efforts on nonproliferation. He said it is committed to realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and upholding stability there and not allowing war to break out. He repeated a proposal for North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a suspension of large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises – which the allies have rejected.
In February, China said it was suspending for the rest of the year coal imports that are an important revenue source for North Korea. Beijing said that was to adhere to the latest in a series of Security Council resolutions aimed at curbing the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Other Chinese economic activity with North Korea remains robust.
In a separate interview with National Public Radio, Tillerson said the U.S. remains open to holding direct negotiations with Pyongyang.
“But North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the about the right agenda, and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things,” he said. “That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.”
China is eager to see a resumption of negotiations. Six-nation talks with North Korea on its nuclear program, hosted by Beijing, stalled in 2008. The Obama administration attempted to resurrect them in 2012, but a deal to provide food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze soon collapsed.
“What is crucial today is to resume the talks. It could be either bilateral, trilateral or multilateral, but ultimately we hope we will get back to the six-party talks because the six parties are the six parties that are directly related to the issue on the peninsula,” Wang said.
North Korea says it needs nuclear weapons because of the “hostile” policy of the U.S. toward it, and has threatened nuclear strikes if there is war. It complained this week that the Security Council rejected its request last month to discuss the U.S.-South Korea military exercises it says are a rehearsal for invasion.
The U.S. is currently president of the 15-member Security Council. Although South Korea is not currently on the council it will also address the meeting. As of late Thursday, North Korea had not requested to speak.
Tillerson will have separate meetings Friday with British Foreign Secretary Johnson, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters Thursday that “the world cannot ignore” the emerging threat of the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear capability. French Ambassador Francois Delattre said it supports America and others in seeking to maximize pressure on the North Korean government.