North Korea tested a ballistic missile on Saturday morning local time, in a provocative move that came just hours after Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, called on UN member states to impose “painful” sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang.
US Pacific Command, which oversees US forces in Asia, said North Korea launched a missile at 5.03am local time on Saturday from a location near Pukchang airfield, but that the missile “did not leave North Korean territory”. The Pentagon said the missile did not pose a threat to the US.
President Donald Trump responded to the test by declaring that Pyongyang had “disrespected” China. The US is trying to convince China to ramp up pressure on North Korea to help convince Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, to abandon his missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
“North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Mr Trump tweeted several hours after the missile launch.
Mr Tillerson had earlier in New York told the UN the world was running out of time to deal with the threat from North Korea and that “the time has come for all of us to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path”.
“For too long, the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea. Those days must come to an end,” Mr Tillerson told the UN Security Council. “Failing to act now . . . may bring catastrophic consequences.”
His remarks came one day after Mr Trump said he wanted to tackle the North Korea crisis with diplomacy, but that it was “very difficult”. Mr Trump told Reuters there was “a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea”.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have dramatically escalated as North Korea edges closer to being able to hit the US with a nuclear-armed missile. The US has deployed warships and a Tomahawk-carrying submarine to the region in a show of military force aimed at putting pressure on Pyongyang.
At his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month, Mr Trump urged China to put more pressure on North Korea. The FT reported this week that the Trump administration had also urged Jimmy Carter, the former US president who has served as an envoy between Washington and Pyongyang, not to complicate current US policy by seeking any kind of rapprochement with North Korea.
“We call on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea . . . In light of North Korea’s recent actions, normal relations with the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] are unacceptable,” Mr Tillerson said.
He said it was crucial to “increase North Korea’s financial isolation” by tightening existing sanctions and imposing new measures. He said the US wanted to “bring maximum economic pressure by severing trade relationships” that fund Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programme. He also urged countries not to accept North Korean guest workers and called for “bans on North Korean imports, and especially coal”.
“The US also would much prefer countries and people in question own up to their lapses and correct their behaviour themselves, but we will not hesitate to sanction third country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s illegal activities,” he said.
He stressed that “China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique”, and said Washington looked forward “to further actions that build on what China has already done”.
Mr Tillerson repeated the Trump administration stance that the policy of “strategic patience” pursued by the Obama administration was over and all options “must remain on the table”.
“Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed up by a willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action if necessary,” said Mr Tillerson. “We much prefer a negotiated solution to this problem. But we are committed to defending ourselves and our allies against North Korean aggression.”
The Trump administration has hinted that it might consider holding talks with North Korea, but Mr Tillerson stressed that Pyongyang would first have to adhere to existing UN sanctions.
“We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea. We will not reward their violations of past resolutions. We will not reward their bad behaviour with talks,” Mr Tillerson said after the other members of the UNSC had spoken. “We will only engage in talks with North Korea when they exhibit a good faith commitment to abiding by the security council resolution and their past promises to end their nuclear programmes.”
Mr Tillerson also said the US recognised that some nations had ties with Pyongyang that made them less inclined to impose hardship on the regime. But he stressed that “the catastrophic effects of a North Korean nuclear strike outweigh any economic benefits”.
“We must be willing to face the hard truths and make hard choices right now to prevent disastrous outcomes in the future. Business as usual is not an option,” he said.
John Kasich, the Ohio governor who competed with Mr Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, on Thursday said the US should be “taking out” the North Korean leadership, and that it was not out of the question that the Trump administration was considering such a plan. “The North Korean top leadership has to go, and there are ways that that can be achieved,” he said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver in Washington
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi