Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls for 'new approach' to North Korea, but offers no details

By Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO, March 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday the escalating threat from North Korea's nuclear program showed a clear need for a "new approach," although he stopped short of detailing what steps the Trump administration would pursue.

Tillerson was speaking at a news conference following talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, the start of his first trip to Asia as secretary of state. It was the first time Tillerson, a former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, took questions from the media since joining office in early February.

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A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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Two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including aid given to North Korea by the United States, had failed to achieve the goal of denuclearising Pyongyang, he said.

"So we have 20 years of failed approach," Tillerson said. "That includes a period where the United States has provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway."

He added: "In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach."

Tillerson visits South Korea and China later in the week. The New York Times reported on Wednesday he will warn Chinese officials that the United States would increase missile defenses in the region and target Chinese banks if Beijing does not constrain North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday that Tillerson will have "substantive, hard" talks with U.S. partners in Asia on next steps in dealing with North Korea, but his visit was not likely to produce an immediate specific response.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeated Foreign Minister Wang Yi's proposal last week that North Korea should stop its nuclear and missile tests and South Korea and the United States should stop joint military drills and seek talks instead.

"We welcome all parties, including the United States, to come up with their own proposals," Hua told a daily news briefing. "As long as these proposals are conducive to ameliorating the present tense situation on the Korean peninsula and are beneficial to maintaining regional peace and stability ... China will have an open attitude."

Tillerson made it clear he expected China to do more.

"We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking that would be helpful to bringing North Korea to a different attitude about its future need for nuclear weapons," he said.

SEEKING CLUES

Japan is seeking clues to Washington's policies both on North Korea and China's increasing military and economic clout while hoping to steer clear of trade rows during Tillerson's visit.

U.S. President Donald Trump made it a hallmark of his presidential campaign to call on U.S. allies, including Japan, to pay more for hosting U.S. forces and other elements of U.S. protection.

During the joint news conference with Kishida, Tillerson issued a far gentler version of that message, first underscoring the "long-standing" U.S.-Japanese alliance.

"While the security environment in this region can be challenging, the United States is committed to strengthening our role, and we welcome an increased Japanese commitment to their roles and responsibilities in our alliance," he said.

North Korea last week launched four more ballistic missiles and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

Washington has previously said all options, including military, are on the table in its review of policies toward North Korea and Japanese officials are keen to know more details. In the final months of the Obama administration, U.S. officials warned China it would blacklist Chinese companies and banks that do illicit business with North Korea, if Beijing failed to enforce United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.

Tillerson's trip to Asia also comes as the United States has begun deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, a move that China strongly objects to because it sees the system's radar as a threat to its security.

Pak Myong Ho, a North Korean embassy official speaking in Beijing on Thursday, said the THAAD deployment "will destroy the balance in Northeast Asia and the Pacific region."

"The radar is not aimed at just us," Pak said. "It is also aiming for China and Russia."

China's assertiveness in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial row with Japan, and the South China Sea, where it has disputes with the Philippines and several other Southeast Asian nations, will also be on the agenda during Tillerson's visit to Japan as will trade.

Trump administration trade adviser Peter Navarro cited Japan on Monday for non-tariff trade barriers and said Washington must use its leverage as the world's largest market to boost U.S. exports.

Some Japanese officials, though, say trade will take a back seat to security. "We have more key issues of common concern, like North Korea," one official said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to media.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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