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Tillerson's terse words seen as tactical change over NKorea

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/04/2017 By KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press
A man watches a TV news program showing a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. North Korea fired a ballistic missile into its eastern waters Wednesday, U.S. and South Korean officials said, amid worries the North might conduct banned nuclear or rocket tests ahead of the first summit between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week. The letters read on top left "North Korea fired a ballistic missile." (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man) © The Associated Press A man watches a TV news program showing a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. North Korea fired a ballistic missile into its eastern waters Wednesday, U.S. and South Korean officials said, amid worries the North might conduct banned nuclear or rocket tests ahead of the first summit between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week. The letters read on top left "North Korea fired a ballistic missile." (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL, South Korea — The response of America's chief diplomat to North Korea's latest missile launch was an abrupt departure from the usual — which may be a turning point, analysts in Asia say.

The statement from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson totaled 23 words: "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."

While Tillerson's statement was unusually short and vague, experts in South Korea and Japan saw it as a sign of consistency on how the United States under President Donald Trump will deal with North Korea as it speeds up its nuclear weapon and missile developments.

North Korea with its missile launches probably wants to create attention and use it as leverage for concessions, but Tillerson with his statement has sent a stern message that the United States won't be a party to it, South Korean experts said.

"It seems Tillerson purposefully issued a short statement to send a tough signal," said Kim Sung-han, a professor at Seoul's Korea University and a former South Korean deputy foreign minister. "He is making it clear that, no matter what North Korea does, the United States won't commit to direct negotiations unless Pyongyang shows real willingness for disarmament."

Bong Youngshik, a researcher at Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Tillerson's statement would have also been aimed at China ahead of President Xi Jinping's first meeting with Trump later this week in Florida.

Trump is likely to urge China's leader to take up stronger role in pressuring the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and Tillerson's statement is a way of stressing it's time for action on North Korea, not just talk, Bong said.

Tillerson also might stop making routine statements after every North Korean provocation or missile launch, Bong said.

"It is what it is," Bong said. "There's really no need for Tillerson to react every time when North Korea does something. The United States has moved on and is now trying to resolve problem through a larger scale, such as the summit with China shows."

While Trump and his top policymakers continue their tough talk on the North Korean issue, it's unclear such rhetoric would be enough to effectively influence North Korea and China, Pyongyang's only major ally.

Every North Korean nuclear test and missile launch reminds the United States and its allies of the limited options they have on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

A military strike on the North's nuclear or missile facilities risks triggering a devastating war that could quickly kill hundreds of thousands. The effect of further sanctions is questionable as North Korea puts the survival of its ruling elite before the wellbeing of its struggling populace and already is one of the most heavily penalized places on earth. Renewing negotiations with Pyongyang would require trust that it won't pocket aid and renege on any promises.

Tillerson in a visit to China last month declared an end to the Obama administration's "strategic patience" policy to wait out Pyongyang until it caves and decides to denuclearize, but the Trump administration has yet to reveal any meaningfully different approach.

Narushige Michishita, an expert from Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said Trump's efforts to "sound scary" won't work with Pyongyang and Beijing if he fails to back his words with action.

"The Trump administration's credibility will be undermined if it fails," he said.

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Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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