U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Friday as the first major schedule of his trip to South Korea, the foreign ministry said Thursday, in an apparent bid to demonstrate a strong alliance between the two countries against North Korea.
He pointedly noted that 20 years of "diplomatic and other efforts" had failed to dissuade the isolated communist government from developing its nuclear program, which he called an "ever-escalating threat".
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (L) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during their meeting in Washington D.C., the United States, on February 28, 2017.
Over that time, the U.S. had given North Korea a total of $1.35 billion in assistance "as an encouragement to take a different pathway", Tillerson said, but it had been met with continued weapons development.
"We do believe they have a very important role to play", Tillerson said of Beijing.
"We don't take this opportunity lightly", he said. It's a far cry from the splash Hillary Clinton made in February 2009 on her first trip overseas as secretary of state, following a similar itinerary through Asia. The State Department claimed it was because of space concerns due to Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, taking a smaller plane.
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Cooperation among Japan, the US and South Korea will be critical to a tougher approach.
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Tillerson, speaking in Tokyo on March 16, was reacting to President Donald Trump's plans to cut the State Department's budget by some 28 percent.
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.
During the campaign a year ago, Trump vowed to impose high tax on Chinese imports, exert pressure on China on its currency policy and urge for increased intellectual property protection.
Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that after so many years of failed diplomacy, it's inevitable the USA would consider more aggressive steps like military action.
Separately, Mr Tillerson met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for an hour yesterday, and the two leaders agreed that it was necessary for the United States to maintain its deterrence in the region.
"This is just an attempt to reach beyond the usual suspects, and I'm not trying to say that in a demeaning way at all", State Department spokesman Mark Toner revealed Wednesday, adding the department's latest move is "part of an effort to include a broader representation of US media".
Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to visit the United States in April, presumably meeting Trump for the first time.