MANILA — North Korea on Monday spurned overtures from South Korea and the United States, and instead lobbed a new inflammatory threat to retaliate against the United States over new U.N. sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its missile and nuclear tests.
In a speech at the ASEAN Regional Forum, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said that “under no circumstances” would it negotiate away its nuclear weapons, according to a transcript.
The forum was closed to the press, so it could not be determined whether the speech was actually delivered as prepared and labeled on a six-page copy given to reporters.
In the printed version of the speech, Ri said the entire U.S. mainland is within firing range of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is North Korea’s official name. He said Pyongyang would use nuclear weapons only against the United States or any other country that might join it in military action against North Korea. And he dismissed stiff U.N. Security Council sanctions passed Saturday as illegal.
“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on [the] negotiating table,” he said. “Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves, unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the D.P.R.K. are fundamentally eliminated.”
In an attempt to paint the United States as the global threat much of the world considers his own country to be, Ri pointedly mentioned the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, and cast North Korea’s nuclear program as self-defensive in nature.
“Since the emergence of nuclear weapons in the world, it has been proved throughout history that nukes can deter war,” he declared.
Ri’s remarks went unheard by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left the conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations early to attend a scheduled meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Tillerson and other diplomats attending the security conference in Manila have spent the last two days racing to find a way to tamp down a standoff that is growing more entrenched and dangerous by the day. In a news conference earlier Monday, Tillerson said the United States is ready to talk with North Korea if it stops conducting tests of ballistic missiles. The missiles fired in the latest tests are considered capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
“The best signal that North Korea could give us that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Tillerson said at a news conference in Manila. But, he added, “this is not a ‘Give me 30 days and we are ready to talk.’ It’s not quite that simple. So it is all about how we see their attitude toward approaching a dialogue with us.”
Tillerson, who previously has said the United States does not seek regime change in Pyongyang, reiterated his hope that eventually the Korea Peninsula will rid itself of nuclear weapons.
“We hope again that this ultimately will result in North Korea coming to a conclusion to choose a different pathway, and when the conditions are right that we can sit and have a dialogue around the future of North Korea so that they feel secure and prosper economically,” he told reporters.
But North Korea is not in a conciliatory mood. In what was apparently a chance meeting at a gala dinner Sunday night, Ri spoke briefly with his counterpart from South Korea, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. During their chat, Ri rebuffed the South’s recent proposal to resume negotiations, calling the offer “insincere.”
A more direct warning was aimed at the United States in a government statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean,” it said.
North Korea, KCNA said, “will make the U.S. pay dearly for all the heinous crimes it commits against the state and people of this country.”
North Korea rarely attends, or is even invited to, international forums such as the ASEAN meeting. Ri tried to make the most of it, holding meetings with the top diplomats from China and Russia, two countries that voted in favor of the latest U.N. sanctions. China alone is responsible for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, and Russia, like China, employs North Koreans as contract workers, whose salaries mostly go directly to their government.
Moscow and Beijing both have proposed a “freeze for a freeze” approach, in which North Korea would suspend its missile and nuclear testing if the United States and its allies stop conducting joint military exercises in the region. Washington has rejected that as a moral inequivalency.
After meeting with Ri, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on all parties “to show maximum restraint to avoid the projection of military power on the Korean Peninsula and immediately start seeking a political and diplomatic resolution to the problems of the peninsula, including its denuclearization.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he told Ri that North Korea should abide by U.N. prohibitions against missile and nuclear testing. But he also said that sanctions, while needed, “are not the final goal,” and he called for dialogue. Wang urged the United States and South Korea, as well as the North, not to increase tensions, saying the situation already is at a “critical point.”
Chinese state media on Monday acknowledged North Korea had to be punished for its missile tests, but criticized the United States for its “arrogance.”
In Washington, however, the administration remains committed to a campaign to deprive the North Korean government of revenue by urging other countries not to hire North Koreans as laborers and pressing for more diplomatic isolation.
In the White House account of a phone call between President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “the two leaders affirmed that North Korea poses a grave and growing direct threat to the United States, South Korea, and Japan, as well as to most countries around the world.”