Last month Rex Tillerson declared “all options” were on the table when it came to North Korea, stating the “era of strategic patience” was over.
The comment by the US secretary of state was seen as an ominous signal that direct military action – the option rejected by so many previous administrations – was now being seriously considered.
The recent joint US military drills, the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system to South Korea, and the imminent arrival of the US aircraft super carrier USS Carl Vinson to Korean waters, have all added to the growing sense of tension.
But what the last 24 hours have shown is that when Tillerson said “all options” were on the table, they really were – while patience may have run out, for now at least, the scope for diplomatic progress has not.
Indeed, the combination of a presidential tweet and a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council indicates the Trump administration still believes there is a chance China can be nudged towards exerting new pressure on North Korea.
In his Twitter response to North Korea’s latest failed missile test President Trump attempted to drive a wedge between Kim Jong-Un and his main diplomatic backers, claiming the test had “disrespected the wishes of China and its highly respected president”.
But President Trump was in effect playing ‘good cop’ to ‘bad cop’ Secretary Tillerson, who hours before the missile test had delivered a clear warning to China that it should no longer help North Korea evade international sanctions.
In a speech at the UN Security Council, in which he pointed out that 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade was with China, Tillerson claimed the failure of nations to exercise leverage where they possess it “discredits this body”.
“The United States would much prefer countries and people (that help North Korea go around sanctions) own up to their lapses and correct their behaviour themselves, but we will not hesitate to sanction third-country entities and individuals,” Tillerson said.
His proposals included new sanctions such as putting further blocks on imports from North Korea, ending guest-worker programmes that allow North Koreans employment in other countries, and the suspension or downgrading of diplomatic relations.
But in a nod to what he claimed were productive discussions with China, Mr Tillerson suggested the US was willing to consider new negotiations, potentially even direct talks, with North Korea – something China has consistently called for.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, welcomed the acknowledgement that diplomacy was still an option, but pushed back against the suggestion that China alone was responsible for controlling the North Korean regime.
“The state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula is not caused by any single party, nor is it reasonable to ask any party to take sole responsibility,” Wang said.
“China is not a party directly involved in the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, nor does it hold the key to solving the issue,” he added.
But even if China does not hold the key to solving the entire issue, it’s clear the US believes it has the power to start shifting the balance – not least by showing Kim Jong-Un that their support has limits.
The latest missile launch indicates the North Korean leader remains defiant in the face of military muscle-flexing and diplomatic condemnation.
The US is hoping China will find international pressure harder to ignore.