Story highlights

Tillerson says US willing to consider military action

Calls for world to take strong measures to rein in North Korea

CNN  — 

North Korea launched a missile Friday in a show of defiance after the US convened an international meeting to call for greater sustained pressure on the isolated country.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the world community Friday to drastically increase pressure on North Korea, warning that failure to do so could be “catastrophic” and that the US is prepared to take military action against the rogue regime if necessary.

Shortly after Tillerson finished his final activity at the UN, meeting with Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Pyongyang launched a missile toward the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, but it blew up over land, according to a US official.

The launch seemed timed to be a response to Tillerson’s call for international action and, perhaps, was North Korea calling the Trump administration’s bluff after a week of increasingly tough rhetoric about how Washington will respond to what it sees as Pyongyang’s bad behavior.

“All options for responding to future provocations must remain on the table,” Tillerson had said earlier in the day. “Diplomatic and financial leverage or power will be backed up by willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action, if necessary.”

The US official said the projectile was a “probable KN-17,” a medium-range ballistic missile, launched from Pukchang airfield. A White House statement Friday evening said the administration was aware of the test and that the President had been briefed.

Tillerson, speaking at a special US-hosted UN meeting to address the challenge, called on member countries to take three immediate steps, singling out China and warning that countries that don’t comply may face consequences. He got pushback in response from China, which accused the US of raising tensions with Pyongyang.

He urged nations to fully enforce existing sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with the already isolated country and increase its financial isolation by targeting countries and individuals that support its nuclear and ballistic missile program.

The US “would much prefer countries and people in question to own up to their lapses and correct their behavior themselves,” Tillerson said, referring to nations that haven’t fully enforced sanctions in the past. “But we will not hesitate to sanction third country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s illegal activities.” 

“For too long the international community has been reactive,” Tillerson said, telling the Security Council that the era of “strategic patience” is over. “The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.”

The UN meeting was meant to intensify pressure on the isolated country and convey in no uncertain terms that Washington expects other countries to help. In making his call for countries to isolate North Korea diplomatically, Tillerson said that “in light of recent actions, normal relations with the DPRK are simply not acceptable.”

He called on countries to sever “trade relationships that directly fund the DPRK’s nuclear and missile program” and pointed specifically to China: “With China accounting for 90% of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded by calling on all parties to address two urgent tasks. “First cooling down (the) temperature in the peninsula as quickly as possible … China strongly urges all parties to remain calm and exercise restraint and avoid provocative rhetoric or action that would lead to miscalculation.”

Wang argued that North Korea wasn’t the only guilty party and charged that the US and South Korea were contributing to tensions by staging the military drills. He issued a “demand” that they stop conducting them.

Several speakers, including British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, roundly rejected the assertion that there was any equivalence between North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and the military drills.

Tillerson said that the US would “much prefer a diplomatic solution to this problem” and stressed that Washington was not interested in regime change or destabilizing the region. But he made clear the US will act if necessary.

“We must prefer a negotiated solution to this problem, but we are committed to defending ourselves and our allies against North Korean aggression,” he said.

The administration has delivered a drumbeat of warnings about the dangers of North Korea this week, using presidential statements, an unusual White House briefing for the Senate and a White House lunch for UN ambassadors to underscore that Pyongyang is a priority.

The US has also moved an aircraft carrier strike group into the region, docked a powerful nuclear submarine in South Korea and staged large military drills with South Korea and Japan.

The rhetoric and muscle-flexing have been seen in some quarters as brinksmanship, particularly with an unpredictable and potentially unstable leader such as Kim, putting some observers on edge.

Several speakers at the UN pressed for de-escalation. Annika Soder, deputy foreign minister of Sweden, which represents US diplomatic interests in North Korea, said, “it’s important for this council to reflect on how tensions can be reduced.”

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu urged deliberation “to ensure that matters do not get out of hand by accident” and warned against “a slide into war from which no one would benefit.”

There was also international condemnation of North Korea’s missile test.

Uruguay UN Ambassador Elbio Rosselli, who sits on the Security Council, called it “very disgraceful,” adding that it was “against international law and humanity.”

The UN meeting comes a day after Tillerson told NPR that the US is willing to engage in talks with North Korea, even as President Donald Trump warned about the possibility of armed conflict with the nuclear-armed regime.

Tillerson told NPR Thursday that the US would be willing to negotiate with Pyongyang. But he told the Security Council Friday that North Korea must first abide by UN resolutions before that happens.

“We will not reward their bad behavior with talks,” Tillerson said at the close of the meeting. “We will only engage in talks with North Korea when they exhibit a good-faith commitment to abiding by the Security Council resolutions and their past promises to end their nuclear programs.”

Vice President Mike Pence indicated in a recent interview with CNN that the administration doesn’t think talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would happen anytime soon.

“The only thing we need to hear from North Korea is that they are ending and ultimately dismantling their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program,” Pence said aboard the USS Ronald Reagan at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. Asked if he though talks were imminent, he said, “not at this time.”

As a candidate, Trump had said he would be willing to speak with Kim. But in an interview on Thursday, Trump said, “We’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.”

Speaking with Reuters in the Oval Office, the President added that “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea, absolutely.”

The net effect is a hardball carrot-and-stick approach, with the Trump administration signaling that it’s willing to recognize North Korea in diplomatic talks, but that it will take action if Pyongyang doesn’t meet US demands.

The approach has also come with a shift in rhetoric about Kim, with Tillerson telling Fox News that “all indications are that he is not crazy.” Citing intelligence assessments and psychological analyses, Tillerson said, “he may be ruthless,” and “he may be a murderer, he may be someone who, in many respects, we would say by our standards is irrational. But he is not insane.”

And Trump expressed something that sounded like sympathy for the 33-year-old autocrat.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump told Reuters. “I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational.”

CNN’s Ryan Browne, Richard Roth and Michelle Kosinski contributed to this report.