Washington and Tokyo have agreed to accelerate military cooperation between U.S. and Japanese forces, bolstering maritime and ballistic missile defense and expanding into new areas such as cyberwarfare, in an attempt to curb the threat of North Korea to the Pacific region.
Bilateral talks in Washington on Thursday between Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Taro Kono, took place days after North Korea backed off threats to test launch missiles against U.S. military targets in Guam, missiles that would fly over Japanese airspace.
The threat against Guam capped a tense several weeks that saw a sharp escalation in rhetoric between the regime in Pyongyang and the Trump White House. Mr. Trump vowed to rain “fire and fury” against North Korea after a pair of successful test launches of long-range ballistic missiles in July. While the threat of war between the U.S. and the North has subsided, the U.S. and its Pacific allies remain on the “front line” in the simmering conflict, Mr. Mattis said.
“Japan and the Republic of Korea are on the front line against the North Korean threat. We in the United States recognize any confrontation with North Korea would pose an immediate danger to our allies and their populations,” he said alongside Mr. Tillerson and his Japanese counterparts during a press conference at the State Department.
As a result of the growing military threat posed by North Korea, “our militaries are also cooperating in new ways,” the Pentagon chief said, adding “Together, we will deter and, if necessary, defeat any threat.”
However, administration critics claim Mr. Trump’s fiery rhetoric seemed to indicate the administration had given little weight to diplomatic options, and was too eager to pursue military action against the North should Pyongyang not back down. Mr. Trump’s off-the-cuff threats to have a military response to the North Korean regime “locked and loaded” in particular prompted his top national security advisers, including Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson, to publicly walk back those statements.
On Thursday, Mr. Tillerson attempted to clarify the administration’s stance on North Korea.
“We are prepared militarily, we are prepared with our allies to respond, if that is necessary,” he said. “That is not our preferred pathway. And that’s been made clear as well,” he added.
The diplomatic option got an endorsement from an unlikely source Thursday, in an interview White House chief strategist Steve Bannon gave to the journal American Prospect. The influential Mr. Bannon appeared to undercut the tough rhetorical line Mr. Trump has embraced in his public comments against the North.
“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it,” Mr. Bannon said. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
While putting its latest threats on hold, North Korea insists it will never put its nuclear weapons program on the negotiating table as long as the Trump administration keeps up its “hostile policy and nuclear threat.”
The warning came from North Korea’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Kim In-ryong in the transcript of his conversation with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday and released Thursday, The Associated Press reported.
Washington’s efforts to reach a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the growing crisis on the Korean peninsula were boosted this week when China announced plans to cut off North Korean coal, iron ore and other goods in three weeks in compliance with recently approved U.N. sanctions.
China, North Korea’s main trade partner and sole patron in the international community, has been hesitant to push too hard against Kim Jong-un’s regime despite efforts by the Trump White House to pressure Beijing to take a harder line against the North.
Mr. Kono told reporters in Washington he anticipates China to continue to follow through on such efforts in the near future. But he dismissed claims that any talks between Pyongyang, the U.S. and its allies could take place before the North agrees to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
“There’s no sense of dialogue for the sake of dialogue. We agreed on this point,” Mr. Kono said. “Between Japan and the United States, or Japan, U.S. and [South Korea] at the center, the international community will continue to apply its maximum pressure to North Korea. I think there’s a necessity of doing so.”