Tillerson Dismisses North Korea Regime Change as Ships Move

  • Aircraft carrier diverted to North Asia as tensions simmer
  • Move comes amid friction over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. wasn’t interested in “regime change” in North Korea as American warships were diverted to waters near the country amid heightened tensions over its nuclear weapons program.

While the U.S. wants a denuclearized Korean peninsula, it has “no objective to change the regime in North Korea,” Tillerson said Sunday on “This Week” program. The country must stop all weapons testing before further diplomatic talks can take place, he said.

Kim Jong Un’s regime “has made significant advancements in delivery systems, and that is what concerns us the most,” Tillerson said. When asked what message North Korea should take from the U.S. strike on Syria last week, he said: “If you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”

The USS Carl Vinson.

Photogrpaher: Aaron Tam/AFP via Getty Images

Tensions are rising in the region as President Donald Trump seeks to prevent North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike targets in the continental U.S. with a nuclear weapon. He has threatened to act unilaterally if China -- North Korea’s main ally and benefactor -- fails to do more to curb its neighbor’s activities.

The strike group sailing north includes the USS Carl Vinson, several guided-missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser, according to a statement on the Navy’s website. It had been scheduled to sail to Australia from Singapore. “U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson strike group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” Pacific Command spokesman Dave Benham said Sunday.

“Third Fleet ships operate forward with a purpose: to safeguard U.S. interests in the Western Pacific,” he said. “The No. 1 threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said the diversion of the vessels toward the Korean Peninsula was a “prudent” move. “North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior,” McMaster said. “This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime.”

Range of Options

McMaster said Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at their summit in Florida that “what must happen is the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Trump “has asked us to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat,” McMaster said.

A South Korean defense ministry spokesman said on Monday that the decision to divert the Carl Vinson will send a signal to North Korea that the U.S. and its allies are fully prepared to defend against any provocation. There’s a rising possibility that Kim will conduct a nuclear or missile test as key anniversary dates loom, such as the April 15 birthday of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said at a news briefing.

Trump sent a message to North Korea and its ally China during his meeting with Xi that he was willing to take action over Kim’s nuclear program, said Lee Ho-ryung, chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

Read more: Syria missile strike sends message to Trump’s foreign rivals

“The U.S. is proving itself that it can really take action if you play with chemical weapons like Syria,” Lee said.

Preemptive Strikes

North Korea conducted another ballistic missile test Wednesday, shortly before Xi and Trump met. Kim has said previously his regime was close to developing a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to North America, and has threatened to conduct preemptive strikes on the U.S. and its allies if it believed an attack was imminent.

South Korea’s unification ministry downplayed concerns that the U.S. might consider a preemptive attack against North Korea after Trump spoke with acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn by phone on the weekend. The conversation was “positive,” ministry spokesman Lee Duk-haeng said at a briefing on Monday, without elaborating.

North Korea condemned the U.S. missile strikes against Syria, calling last week’s attack “absolutely unpardonable,” according to a Korean Central News Agency report citing a foreign ministry spokesman. North Korea will bolster its capacity to protect itself from “reckless moves,” the spokesman was quoted as saying.

— With assistance by Ros Krasny, Todd Shields, and Kanga Kong

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