Tillerson warns of possible military strike on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned for the first time Friday that “all options” are being considered to counter North Korea’s emerging nuclear threat, including a military strike if necessary to safeguard allies and tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the region.

The threat of a U.S. military attack comes after a series of ballistic missile tests by Kim Jong Un’s government in recent weeks has heightened tensions across northeast Asia and raised the possibility of a conflict with an adversary that now possesses nuclear arms and appears close to being able to strike U.S. territory.

The tough talk appears to be a break from previous U.S. administrations, which emphasized diplomacy, economic sanctions and covert operations, including cyberattacks, to try to reduce the danger from one of the world’s most isolated, and unpredictable, dictatorships.

“Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict,” Tillerson told reporters in Seoul on the second leg of his three-nation visit to Asia, his first to the region since taking office.

Tillerson ate lunch with U.S. troops there and signed a brick with chalk, a tradition for dignitaries who visit the site.

Tillerson’s tour of the region comes as the U.S. military is participating in a two-month exercise with South Korean and Japanese forces, an annual exercise that North Korea routinely denounces as a prelude to war.

The Foal Eagle exercise involves fighter jets, submarines and ground forces involved in a range of complex drills. About 3,600 U.S. service members were deployed for the event, joining the 28,000 U.S. troops permanently based in South Korea.

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday that the U.S. military has a number of plans in place in the event of hostile North Korean military action. He would not directly comment on the possibility of a preemptive U.S. attack.

“I’ll let Secretary Tillerson talk for U.S. policy,” Davis said. “Our job is to provide military options that give strength to foreign policy that he leads.”

Tillerson’s meeting in Seoul comes amid political upheaval in South Korea. Its president was removed from office last week in a corruption scandal that threatens nearly a decade of conservative party rule.

The leading candidate in the polls, Moon Jae-in, says he wants to delay installation of a new U.S. antimissile system, known as THAAD, which is intended to shoot down North Korean missiles.

The U.S. began moving parts of the system into South Korea last month, although it is not yet operational. The missile battery is to be installed in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang province, in the southeastern part of the country.

Chinese officials have complained that the system’s sophisticated radar would undermine China’s own military deterrent, and have retaliated by disrupting tourism and commerce with South Korea.

“While we acknowledge China’s opposition, its economic retaliation is inappropriate and troubling,” Tillerson said, calling on China to end the practice.

Staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Stiles from Seoul. Special correspondent Jessica Meyers in Beijing and staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, is being installed on Jeju Island. Plans call for it to be in Seongju County in the southeastern part of South Korea.

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