U.S. Admits New Strategy Needed to Stop N. Korea Nuclear Program

Tillerson will look at new options on a visit to the region

U.S. Admits New Strategy Needed to Stop N. Korea Nuclear Program
A truck carrying components needed to set up the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system arrive at the Osan base in South Korea (Photographer: NurPhoto via Getty Images)

(Bloomberg) -- Acknowledging that U.S. efforts to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have failed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will use a trip to Asia next week to look at new ways of approaching a problem that has vexed American presidents since Bill Clinton.

"All of the efforts we have taken thus far to attempt to persuade North Korea to engage in meaningful negotiations have fallen short, to be honest,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Wednesday. “So we need to look at new ways to convince them, to persuade them, that it’s in their interests.”

Toner’s remarks are a rare and frank public admission from the U.S. government that the approach taken toward North Korea in recent years -- which became known as “strategic patience” -- hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to now. For almost two decades the U.S. has refused to engage in direct talks with North Korea.

Last year, North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests and fired 24 ballistic missiles. So far this year, a missile test in February was followed by four ballistic missiles fired this week, which landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Toner spoke days before Tillerson departs for Japan, South Korea and China to meet top leaders. North Korea will be a focus of the talks, which will study “what our options are and new ways to look at resolving the situation,” the spokesman said.

Reviewing Options

President Donald Trump’s administration is reviewing all possible options in North Korea, even those that aren’t likely to be adopted. According to the Wall Street Journal, the administration is weighing everything from the use of military force to recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state.

This week, the U.S. unloaded two mobile missile launchers in South Korea to start deployment of its Thaad missile-defense system. While the U.S. military has said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system was aimed solely at defending South Korea against North Korean missiles, China sees Thaad as a threat aimed at it as well.

Toner wouldn’t say whether the U.S. was willing to consider direct talks with North Korea, saying only that the administration is open to dialogue that would lead to denuclearization talks.

“I don’t want to get into possible formats because we’re so far away from that right now,” Toner said. “What we’re saying is if North Korea were to signal that it was capable of and ready for these kinds of negotiations, then that’s something we would consider. But we’re not there.”

Frustration over North Korea’s weapons programs prompted France’s United Nations envoy to say his country will seek additional European Union restrictions on Pyongyang. Speaking at the UN earlier Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un an “irrational” actor, and said the country must show “some sort of positive action” before the U.S. and European allies can take the regime in Pyongyang seriously.

Toner brushed off Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s suggestion that the U.S. suspend military drills with South Korea as a way to get Kim’s regime back to the negotiating table. He said the drills are “in no way comparable to the blatant disregard North Korea has shown with respect to international law.”

--With assistance from Kambiz Foroohar

To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at, Michael B. Marois, Larry Liebert