Reports: Tillerson to Visit Asia Seeking Unity amid North Korea Turmoil

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson greets Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Multiple reports in South Korean and Japanese news outlets suggest Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be visiting Asia as early as next weekend, seeking to unite South Korea, Japan, and China in cooperation against a growing North Korea threat.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap cited Japan’s Kyodo News late last week as reporting that Tillerson “plans to visit Japan, South Korea and China later this month.” The visit would reportedly have Tillerson meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with a possible in-person meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

If it occurs, the visit would be the first for Tillerson in his position as chief U.S. diplomat in Asia. Voice of America notes that the State Department has not confirmed the visit, however, telling reporters instead that the department is not ready to “share the details of our diplomatic engagement” and have nothing to announce.

“We remain prepared — and will continue to take steps to increase our readiness — to defend ourselves and our allies from attack, and are prepared to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against this growing threat,” the State Department added in a statement to Voice of America.

The State Department is scheduled to have its first press briefing since President Donald Trump took office on Tuesday.

Tillerson made clear during his confirmation hearings that he considered Chinese colonization of the South China Sea a major threat to stability in the region. “China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests,” he told senators at his hearing. On the issue of North Korea, Tillerson has also signaled out China – North Korea’s largest trade partner, despite UN sanctions forbidding trade with North Korea – as a key player in curbing Pyongyang’s belligerence against both its neighbors and the United States.

“If China is not going to comply with those UN sanctions, then it’s appropriate for the United States to consider actions to compel them to comply,” Tillerson told senators during his confirmation hearing. Tillerson reportedly discussed China’s role in containing North Korea with Wang Yi during a visit to Germany last month.

Should the State Department confirm the trip, Tillerson will be the second Trump administration official to make the visit to Asia. Defense Secretary James Mattis made his international debut in Japan and South Korea last month, where he vowed close cooperation with the two nations against both China and North Korea. “From the threat of nuclear missile provocations by North Korea, to increasingly confrontational behavior by China in the East and South China Sea, we recognize the changing security situation,” Mattis assured Japanese media.

Chinese state propaganda warned that Mattis’s presence in Asia – and Trump’s approach towards Asia generally, would trigger a “war” between South and North Korea.

Should he arrive in Asia next month, Tillerson will be facing a much more belligerent North Korea, one that admitted to targeting U.S. bases in Japan with illegal rocket launches this week. Pyongyang fired four missiles Monday towards Japan, openly violating UN sanctions and admitting to practicing a clean shot at U.S. military bases. The incident follows a week in which ties to one of the new neighbors historically tolerant of its oppression and belligerence, Malaysia, collapsed completely. Malaysia expelled North Korea’s ambassador this week; North Korea replied by forbidding all Malaysian nationals, including the ambassador to Pyonyang, from leaving the country.

The UN Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting to address the situation.

“The U.S. has cajoled the UNSC [Security Council] into slapping additional sanctions against the DPRK since its test-fire of ground-to-ground medium to long-range strategic ballistic rocket ‘Pukguksong-2,'” a column in the North Korean propaganda newspaper Rodong Sinmun published Tuesday read. “Clear conclusion is that it is foolish to pin any hope on the UNSC where injustice judges justice and only when a country possesses its own powerful war deterrence can it defend peace and the people live an independent and dignified life.”