WASHINGTON — Days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the military "option is on the table" to stop North Korea's nuclear program, a key lawmaker added his voice to the administration's tough talk.
U.S. House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said Monday he was "really grateful" for Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for making public statements that keep military action on the table. The Obama administration's "strategic patience" approach only fueled Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, he said.
"Strategic patience, benign neglect, it only encouraged the dictatorship to proceed with missile development as we've seen, with the miniaturization of nuclear capability," Wilson said.
Speaking at an event hosted by the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., Wilson said that with the administration's recent statements Pyongyang needs to understand President Trump takes seriously the threat to the American people and will be "acting on the advice of his military."
In the context of U.S.-China relations, Wilson said the "all-of-the above" approach could be applied to Beijing, to tame North Korea. He lauded China's moves to pressure Pyongyang economically and suggested the U.S. might strengthen sanctions against Chinese companies that do business in North Korea.
Last month, Wilson introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning North Korea's development of ICBMs and calling for the United States to apply all available sanctions. The resolution also urges the prompt deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea to counter the missile threat—a move already underway amid Beijing's opposition.
As Tillerson met Sunday with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about diplomacy and shared interests, North Korea tested a rocket engine over the weekend.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw Saturday's successful test of a new type of rocket engine that will enable "world-level satellite delivery capability," the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday.
On Friday, the U.S. signaled a tougher strategy toward North Korea, leaving open the possibility of pre-emptive military action.
"Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended," Tillerson said Friday after visiting the heavily militarized border between the rival Koreas. "We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table."
U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. speaks during a news conference May 19, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Also Friday, President Donald Trump tweeted: "North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!"
Past U.S. administrations have considered military options against North Korea and have publicly said that an attack on the U.S. or its allies would prompt a devastating response.
Tillerson's comments were unusual, however, as he appeared to be implying, in public, that the U.S. would consider military force as a way of preventing an attack by Pyongyang, and not just as a means of retaliation.
It also comes amid a greater sense of urgency about the threat because of North Korea's rapid progress toward developing the means to strike the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile. Risks of military action are high as North Korea could unleash a massive artillery barrage on Seoul in retaliation.
Central to the U.S. policy review is China and its role in any bid to persuade Pyongyang to change course. China remains North Korea's most powerful ally and dominant trading partner. China recently announced it was suspending coal imports that are an important source of revenue for North Korea for the rest of the year in adherence with U.N. sanctions.
Tillerson urged China and other countries to fully implement the sanctions. He criticized China's opposition to a U.S. missile defense system being deployed in South Korea and accused it of waging "inappropriate and troubling" economic retaliation against the South. China sees the system as a threat to its own security although the U.S. says it is only aimed at North Korea. Tillerson said China should focus on the North Korean threat that makes the deployment necessary.
He also rejected Beijing's proposal of halting the U.S.-South Korean military drills in exchange for a nuclear freeze by North Korea. He said the allies had no intention to stand down the exercises that are defensive in nature and conducted transparently, unlike North Korean missile launches. He further sounded skeptical about the idea of negotiating a freeze that would leave the North with "significant capabilities" that could threaten the region and U.S. forces.
The U.S. retains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, and nearly 50,000 in neighboring Japan.
More broadly, Tillerson poured cold water on the idea of resuming negotiations with Pyongyang, saying, "20 years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today."
"It's important that the leadership of North Korea realize that their current pathway of nuclear weapons and escalating threats will not lead to their objective of security and economic development. That pathway can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction, and only then will we be prepared to engage with them in talks," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.