By Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned on Friday that failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could lead to ‘catastrophic consequences,’ while China and Russia rebuked Washington’s threat of military force.
The showdown in a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on North Korea highlighted the diplomatic challenges of resolving tensions over Pyongyang, with the Trump administration aggressively pressing Beijing to rein in its ally, and China and Russia pushing back against Washington’s rhetoric.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the 15-member council it was not only up to China to solve the North Korean problem.
“The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” Wang told the council in blunt remarks that Tillerson later rebuffed.
The ministerial meeting of the council, chaired by Tillerson, exposed old divisions between the United States and China on how to deal with North Korea. China wants talks first and action later, while the United States wants North Korea to curtail its nuclear program before such talks start.
“It is necessary to put aside the debate over who should take the first step and stop arguing who is right and who is wrong,” Wang told the council. “Now is the time to seriously consider resuming talks.”
Tillerson responded: “We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea, we will not reward their violations of past resolutions, we will not reward their bad behavior with talks.”
Since 2006, North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions aimed at impeding the development of its nuclear and missile programs. The council has strengthened sanctions following each of North Korea’s five nuclear tests.
North Korea chose not to make a statement and did not take part in the meeting.
In Tillerson’s first visit to the United Nations he scolded the Security Council for not fully enforcing sanctions against North Korea, saying if the body had acted, tensions over Pyongyang might not have escalated.
He urged the council to act before North Korea does and called on states to sever diplomatic and financial ties with Pyongyang and suspend the flow of North Korean guest workers, as well as impose bans on North Korean imports, especially coal.
“Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences,” he said.
The United States was not pushing for regime change and preferred a negotiated solution, but Pyongyang, for its own sake, should dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, he said.
“The threat of a nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real, and it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S. mainland,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson repeated the Trump administration’s position that all options are on the table if Pyongyang persists with its nuclear and missile development, but Wang said military threats would not help.
Wang said dialogue and negotiations were the “only way out.”
“The use of force does not solve differences and will only lead to bigger disasters,” he said.
Wang and Tillerson met several hours after the council meeting and appeared to have a cordial exchange.
“I appreciate the constructive way that China has engaged with the United States to address the challenges on the Korean peninsula that are common to both of us,” the American diplomat said.
U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview on Thursday a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov cautioned on Friday that the use of force would be “completely unacceptable.”
“The combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing has led to a situation where the whole world seriously is now wondering whether there’s going to be a war or not,” he told the council. “One ill thought-out or misinterpreted step could lead to the most frightening and lamentable consequences.”
Gatilov said North Korea felt threatened by regular joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises and the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula.
China and Russia both also repeated their opposition to the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea. Gatilov described it as a “destabilizing effort,” while Wang said it damaged trust among the parties on the North Korea issue.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told the council that to bring North Korea back to the table the international community “must send a strong message that provocation comes at a high price.”
“There is no doubt that dialogue is necessary … however under the current situation where North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, meaningful dialogue is clearly not possible,” he said.
The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials told Reuters earlier this month.
(Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish)