US pushes for more sanctions, diplomacy over North Korea threats

Shin Hyon-hee

SEOUL ( The Korea Herald/ANN) - Top US officials said "Trump administration seeks to step up sanctions and pressure on North Korea" at a briefing for senators at the White House.

The Donald Trump administration is seeking to step up sanctions and pressure to tackle North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, while engaging the regime through diplomacy, top US officials said Wednesday.

Following a two-month review, the administration is said to have recently settled on its North Korea policy, dubbed “maximum pressure and engagement.” Shortly after Trump hosted a rare closed-door briefing for all 100 senators at the White House, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a joint statement, vowing efforts to boost pressure on Pyongyang.

“Past efforts have failed to halt North Korea’s unlawful weapons programmes and nuclear and ballistic missile tests,” the statement reads.

“The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners.”

Calling the weapons programs an “urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority,” the three officials called for the world to join its campaign, while sending the message that the door is still open for talks.

“We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on (North Korea) in order to convince the regime to deescalate and return to the path of dialogue,” it said.

“We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies.”

The unprecedented statement is apparently designed to serve as the pinnacle of the Trump administration’s weeks long show of force and warnings against an additional major provocation.

Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the secretaries have been sharply ratcheting up pressure, forward deploying a nuclear-powered supercarrier and other cutting-edge military assets toward the peninsula, floating military action and warning the North “not to test” the US’ resolve. They have also been pressing China to take a greater role in reining in its wayward neighbor.

While carrying a more moderate tone relative to recent weeks’ shrill rhetoric, the statement lacks details that may point to a fresh strategy and tactics.

The officials have repeatedly declared the demise of former President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” policy. But sanctions and pressure were the centerpiece of the approach, and dialogue has never been ruled out under any administration, observers say.

After the briefing, some of the US senators also took issue with the absence of specifics on the Trump administration’s thinking on North Korea and any potential future actions such as in response to a new nuclear test.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley told CNN said he believed the White House’s decision to arrange the meeting was for “optics,” while Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he “didn’t hear anything.”

“Having dealt with the North Korean nuclear issues for more than 20 years, it would be really difficult for anyone to come up with an entirely new yet sound approach at this point,” an official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said on customary condition of anonymity.

“But under Trump, the level of pressure could be different against both North Korea and China, as it’s trying to put maximum pressure, and this could bring different actions and different results.”

The ministry also issued a statement touting Washington’s efforts, saying the latest move showed its determination to change Pyongyang’s course and return to serious negotiations.

“The joint statement reaffirms the US administration’s clear resolve to take the North to the path of denuclearisation through economic and diplomatic pressure,” spokesperson Cho June-hyuck said at a regular news briefing Thursday.

“South Korea and the US maintain a consistent position on dialogue - if North Korea takes the path to denuclearisation with sincerity, the door for dialogue will open. We once again urge the North to realise that denuclearisation is the only option it can choose, and come out to the path of change.”