Syria strike a message to North Korea and others, Tillerson hints

Updated April 9, 2017 - 6:46 pm

WASHINGTON — U.S. military strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons are a warning to other nations, including North Korea, that “a response is likely” if they pose a danger, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday.

As a U.S. Navy strike group headed toward the Korean Peninsula, Tillerson said China agrees that action is necessary to address North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, following last week’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Asked if Friday’s strikes against Syria were a message to North Korea, Tillerson told ABC’s This Week: “The message that any nation can take is, ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.’”

“In terms of North Korea,” he added, “we’ve been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korea peninsula.”

In a separate interview, Tillerson told CBS’ Face the Nation: “President Xi clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.”

Trump will soon review options for removing the “threat” posed by North Korean missiles, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said on Sunday.

North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, have repeatedly indicated an intercontinental ballistic missile test or something similar could be coming, possibly as soon as April 15, the 105th birthday of North Korea’s founding president and celebrated annually as “the Day of the Sun.”

Reuters was first to report on Saturday that the Navy strike group Carl Vinson, whose flagship is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of that name, will make its way toward the Korean peninsula from Singapore as a show of force after Pyongyang tested a liquid-fueled Scud missile this month.

“It’s prudent to do it, isn’t it?” McMaster said of the deployment on Fox News Sunday.

“This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime, and President Xi and President Trump agreed that that is unacceptable, that what must happen is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

A U.S. national security review of options on North Korea include economic and military measures. But they lean more toward sanctions and increased pressure on Beijing to rein in its neighbor.

Trump’s decisive response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of banned sarin nerve gas on Syrian civilians won praise from previously skeptical U.S. allies in Europe, and from some of his harshest critics at home.

But the president and his advisers seemed far less eager to engage longer-term policy questions about the multi-sided Syrian war, now in its seventh year.

With North Korea, the underlying issues are just as complex, but the threat of a nuclear conflict — or even a devastating conventional military attack on South Korea and Japan — makes the stakes far higher.

Perhaps mindful of parallels that could be drawn over defiance of international norms, North Korea denounced the U.S. missile strike on Syria as “intolerable,” and reiterated its own right to self-defense.

“The number one 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,” U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Dave Benham told reporters.

North Korea has a long history of defying United Nations resolutions and other attempts to prevent it from developing nuclear arms to go with its growing ballistic-missile capabilities.

North Korea has conducted five underground nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could deliver a warhead to U.S. territory.

“If we judge that they have perfected that type of delivery system, then that becomes a very serious stage of their further development,” Tillerson said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

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