Tillerson urges halt to North Korea tests before talks but Mattis says ICBM not yet ‘capable threat’ to U.S.

December 16, 2017 - 7:56 AM
Kim Jong Un missile launch
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un watches an undated missile launch. Photograph released by Reuters sourced from Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)

UNITED NATIONS/WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged North Korea on Friday to carry out a “sustained cessation” of weapons testing to allow the two countries to hold talks about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

“North Korea must earn its way back to the table. The pressure campaign must and will continue until de-nuclearization is achieved,” Tillerson told a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on North Korea’s weapons programs. He did not specify how long the lull should last.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on the same day that even as analysis continued on North Korea’s most recent missile test, he did not believe its intercontinental ballistic missile posed an imminent threat to the United States.

“It has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now … we’re still doing the forensics analysis,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

Tillerson told reporters after the Security Council meeting that the U.S. would not accept any preconditions for talks with North Korea.

He had raised hopes this week that the United States and North Korea could negotiate to resolve their standoff when he said that the United States was “ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk.”

But the White House distanced itself from those remarks by Tillerson and said that now is not the time for negotiations.

North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations on Friday made no mention of Tillerson’s call for a halt to testing when he addressed the same U.N. meeting.

Ambassador Ja Song Nam said his country would not pose a threat to any state, as long as its interests were not infringed upon.

He described the Security Council session as “a desperate measure plotted by the U.S. being terrified by the incredible might of our Republic that has successfully achieved the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”

New type of ICBM

Last month, North Korea said it had successfully tested a new type of ICBM that could reach all of the U.S. mainland and South Korea and U.S.-based experts said data from the November 29 test appeared to support that.

Mattis did not elaborate on what was lacking in the test to show it was not a capable threat.

He said himself immediately after the test that the missile had gone higher than any previous North Korean launch and that it was part of a research and development effort “to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically.”

U.S.-based experts, some of whom have been skeptical about past North Korean claims, said last month that data and photos from the test appeared to confirm North Korea had a missile of sufficient power to deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in America.

But experts and U.S. officials have said questions remain about whether it has a re-entry vehicle capable of protecting a nuclear warhead as it speeds toward its target and about the accuracy of its guidance systems.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said this latest test put Washington within range, but Pyongyang still needed to prove it had mastered re-entry, terminal stage guidance and warhead activation.

Some U.S. based experts believe North Korea could be only two or three tests away from being able to declare the missile operational.

U.S. President Donald Trump vowed “it won’t happen” after North Korean said in January is was in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States.

Trump has said all options are on the table, including military ones, although his administration has made clear it prefers a diplomatic solution.

“It continues to be a diplomatically led effort,” Mattis said. “When we’re ready to have conversations … dialogues, that will be up to the president and secretary of state.”

Little interest in negotiations

North Korea has made clear it has little interest in negotiations with the United States until it has developed the ability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, something most experts say it has yet to prove.

North Korea conducted missile tests at a steady pace since April, then paused in September after firing a rocket that passed over Japan’s Hokkaido island.

But it renewed tests in November when it fired the Hwasong-15, which flew higher and further than previous tests.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told the Security Council that North Korea was “nowhere near ready” to abandon its nuclear and missile programs and was not interested in a meaningful dialogue. He said any lull in missile tests did not mean that North Korea was sitting idly.

“The latest launch was conducted 75 days after North Korea’s provocations in September. Some optimistic views labeled 75 days of silence as a positive signal. However, the missile launch in November made it clear that North Korea was continuing to relentlessly develop its nuclear and missile programs even while they were seemingly silent,” Kono said.

Tillerson also urged China and Russia on Friday to increase pressure on North Korea by going beyond the implementation of U.N. sanctions but the two countries were wary of the idea.

China’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wu Haitao said all parties must implement U.N. sanctions, but added that unilateral sanctions undermine the unity of the Security Council and “hurt the legitimate right and interests of other countries and should therefore be abandoned.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Moscow was committed to implementing U.N. sanctions on North Korea and echoed China’s concerns about unilateral sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, to impose an oil embargo on Pyongyang, over and above Beijing’s adherence to U.N. sanctions.

The Security Council has ratcheted up sanctions on North Korea over its weapons programs since 2006.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on Friday it was time to immediately re-establish and strengthen communication channels with North Korea, including inter-Korean and military-to-military channels, to reduce the risk of a misunderstanding escalating into conflict.