UNITED NATIONS The United States and China offered starkly different strategies Friday for addressing North Korea's escalating nuclear threat as President Donald Trump's top diplomat demanded full enforcement of economic sanctions on Pyongyang and urged new penalties. Stepping back from suggestions of U.S. military action, he even offered aid to North Korea if it ends its nuclear weapons program.
The range of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's suggestions, which over a span of 24 hours also included restarting negotiations, reflected America's failure to halt North Korea's nuclear advances despite decades of U.S.-led sanctions, military threats and stop-and-go rounds of diplomatic engagement. As the North approaches the capability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, the Trump administration feels it is running out of time.
Chairing a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council Friday, Tillerson declared that "failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences."
Tillerson said all options "must remain the table," while emphasizing the need for diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea.
His ideas included a ban on North Korean coal imports and preventing its overseas guest laborers, a critical source of government revenue, from sending money home. And he warned of unilateral U.S. moves against international firms conducting banned businesses with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, which could ensnare banks in China, the North's primary trade partner.
"We must have full and complete compliance by every country," Tillerson said.
Yet, illustrating the international gulf over how best to tackle North Korea, several foreign ministers on the 15-member council expressed fears of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which has been divided between the American-backed South and communist North since the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended with no formal peace treaty. And while danger always has lurked, tensions have escalated dramatically as the North's young leader, Kim Jong Un, has expanded a nuclear arsenal his government says is needed to avert a U.S. invasion.
No voice at Friday's session was more important than that of China, a conduit for 90 percent of North Korea's commerce and a country Trump is pinning hopes on for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis. Trump recently hosted President Xi Jinping for a Florida summit and has sometimes praised the Chinese leader for a newfound cooperation to crack down on North Korea and sometimes threatened a go-it-alone U.S. approach if Xi fails to deliver.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would adhere to past U.N. resolutions and wants a denuclearized peninsula, but spelled out no further punitive steps his government might consider, despite Tillerson's assertions in an interview hours ahead of the council meeting that Beijing would impose sanctions of its own if North Korea conducts another nuclear test.
"The key to resolving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side," Wang said, stressing the need for negotiations.
Instead, Wang put forward a familiar Chinese idea to ease tensions: North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile activities, if the U.S. and South Korea stop military exercises in the region. Washington and Seoul reject the idea.
Wang's sentiment was echoed by the deputy foreign minister of Russia, another regional player that has been as much concerned by America's nearby military buildup as the North's nuclear actions.
"Combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing" on North Korea has led to serious fears of war, Gennady Gatilov said.