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Rex Tillerson, in Japan, Says U.S. Needs ‘Different Approach’ to North Korea

“The level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking, particularly in the past year, is simply not sustainable,” Mr. Tillerson said, explaining that current spending reflected the “level of conflicts that the U.S. has been engaged in around the world as well as disaster assistance.”

He said the department would undergo a review of programs and would “be much more effective, much more efficient, and be able to do a lot with fewer dollars.”

The most pressing issue for the United States and its allies in Asia is the advancing threat from North Korea, which has launched ballistic missiles twice in three weeks and has said that it is close to testing a missile that could reach the United States.

In prepared remarks, Mr. Tillerson said he hoped to deepen cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea “in the face of North Korea’s dangerous and unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”


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Policy makers and American reporters were eager to hear Mr. Tillerson speak, given that in his more than 50 days in office he had not expanded on the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Critics have questioned how much influence he has with the president, as he has been absent from meetings with world leaders at the White House.

The secretary’s trip, which will also include stops in Seoul and Beijing, comes as the region is grappling not only with the North Korean threat, but also with increased tensions between China and South Korea, where the United States is deploying a missile defense system that China vigorously opposes.

China is also pushing its territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, rattling other countries across the region. South Korea is without a president after the removal of Park Geun-hye last week, and Japan and South Korea have yet to repair a diplomatic rift after Tokyo recalled its envoy to Seoul more than two months ago to protest a statue commemorating Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

“It’s pretty clear that there’s a perfect storm brewing for mischief in East Asia right now,” said Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist and the director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Analysts were hoping to use Mr. Tillerson’s remarks as guidance on the options that the United States might consider in responding to the nuclear threat from North Korea. American officials are reviewing options that could include a pre-emptive military strike and renewed talks with North Korea.

But when asked for details of a new approach, he did not answer.

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Tillerson took a markedly different tone than the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, who said on a visit to Seoul in February that the use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would be met with an “overwhelming” response.

Mr. Tillerson said “North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea.” He added, “With this in mind the United States calls on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile program and refrain from any further provocations.”

Experts in the region said that while the United States had so far emphasized expanded missile defense with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, they wanted to hear what Mr. Tillerson had to say about diplomatic options, as well as cooperation within the region.

“It was very important to show the deterrence capability,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “But at the same time we need to create a carrot-and-stick type signal to North Korea.”


The American carrier Carl Vinson during an exercise in the South China Sea this month. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a perfect storm brewing for mischief in East Asia right now,” one analyst said. Credit Erik De Castro/Reuters

Mr. Watanabe said that in addition to coordination among the United States, Japan and South Korea, “we also need coordination with China.”

In Japan, government officials are eager to build a relationship with Mr. Tillerson, who is relatively inexperienced in matters pertaining to Asia and who currently has a depleted staff at the State Department to advise him on the region.

Japan has been somewhat reassured after Mr. Mattis visited Tokyo and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited President Trump in Washington and Mar-a-Lago in Florida, with each American official stating that the United States would support its allies. Mr. Tillerson again reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the defense of Japan.

Still, given that President Trump suggested during the campaign that he might pull back from American security commitments to allies in Asia, both Japan and South Korea are likely to remain anxious about American resolve.

“There’s that sense that they are assured for the moment,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, “but Japan and South Korea are like skittish small dogs that need constant reassurance and are constantly nervous.”

Japan has been especially wary after North Korea launched four missiles simultaneously earlier this month that landed within 125 miles of the western coast of Akita Prefecture. North Korea said at the time that the tests were designed “to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.”

The Japanese government is currently discussing upgrades to its missile defense, including acquiring its own Thaad system. And some lawmakers have suggested that Japan needs to consider obtaining the ability to make pre-emptive strikes against missile launches. Mr. Kishida said that “Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities,” but when asked by Adriana Diaz, Asia correspondent for CBS News, about pre-emptive capabilities, he said he did not understand the question and declined to allow her to clarify.

Mr. Tillerson continued the cloistered style of his previous brief foreign trips, to Bonn, Germany, and Mexico City. He did not visit the American Embassy to meet State Department staff, choosing instead to rest and take briefings at his hotel in the morning before his meeting with Mr. Kishida.

While Mr. Tillerson is the highest-ranking member of the Trump administration to visit Japan, the Japanese news media on Thursday initially seemed more interested in the interest rate increase by the United States Federal Reserve and the Dutch election results.

Source: NYT > World

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