U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea's nuclear program at U.N. headquarters in New York City, Dec. 15, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea's nuclear program at U.N. headquarters in New York City, Dec. 15, 2017.

UNITED NATIONS - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities are a direct threat to the United States, and Washington “will use all necessary measures” to defend itself against such aggression.

“In the face of such a threat, inaction is unacceptable for any nation,” Tillerson said.

“We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation,” the secretary told a packed chamber of the U.N. Security Council in New York. “But we do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea.”

Tillerson spoke at a meeting on North Korea’s proliferation convened by Japan, which holds the rotating Security Council presidency this month.

“The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution,” Tillerson added.

FILE - A U.N. Security Council meeting at United N
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a high level Security Council meeting on the situation in North Korea, at United Nations headquarters, Dec. 15, 2017.

North Korea reacts

Saturday North Korean state media again targeted U.S. President Donald Trump, referring to him as “old lunatic Trump” and warning his administration’s officials to “be prudent if they don’t want to meet bitterer disgrace and destruction.”

The article went on to warn that if the Trump “regime resorts to military counteraction,” it will face tougher countermeasures from North Korea and “fall deeper into a quagmire.”

Calling Russia out

In Washington, Trump pointed to Russia to step up pressure against Pyongyang, a day after his phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump said the primary focus of his conversation Thursday with Putin was North Korea, noting Washington needs help from Moscow on Pyongyang.

“China is helping. Russia is not helping. We’d like to have Russia’s help — very important,” Trump told reporters.

When asked if he supports talks with North Korea without precondition, Trump said, “We’re going to see what happens with North Korea. We have a lot of support. There are a lot of nations that agree with us — almost everybody.”

Prospects for talks

At the U.N. Security Council meeting, the top U.S. diplomat repeated his openness to talks with the North Koreans, but added the caveat that Pyongyang “must earn its way back to the table.”

“The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearization is achieved,” Tillerson said. “We will in the meantime, keep our channels of communication open.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Tillerson further distanced himself from comments he made Tuesday that the U.S. is ready to talk to North Korea “without precondition.”

“We are not going to accept preconditions,” he told U.N. reporters. “We do not accept a freeze-for-freeze as a precondition to talks; we do not accept any relaxing of the sanctions regime as a precondition to talks; we do not accept a resumption of humanitarian assistance as a precondition of talks.”

As to the communications channels, he repeated that they remain open. 

“North Korea knows they are open,” he said, “they know where the door is, they know where to walk through that door, when they want to talk.”

Regional voices

“A peaceful solution is desirable, however, it’s North Korea that has consistently rejected such a solution,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who chaired the meeting.

Kono called on the international community to maximize pressure on Pyongyang to change course, and announced that Japan had just imposed asset freezes on 19 additional North Korean entities.

Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono deli
Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono delivers remarks during a United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea's nuclear program at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, Dec. 15, 2017.

China Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wu Haitao echoed the concern of several council members that the situation risks spiraling out of control, an outcome that no one wants.

“The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is mired in a vicious circle of tough posturing and confrontation, which hardly makes one optimistic about its future,” Wu said. “However, the hope for peace is not totally obliterated; there is still a possibility for negotiation and the option of use of force is unacceptable.”

Both North and South Korea addressed the council.

“With a sense of urgency, we should make North Korea perceive without a doubt that it will pay heavily for its provocations; that it will never be accepted as a nuclear weapon state; and that dialogue for denuclearization is the only viable option,” South Korean Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Cho Hyun said.

In a rare appearance at the council, North Korean U.N. Ambassador Ja Song Nam defended Pyongyang’s action as a self-defense measure in the face of what he said is “the U.S. nuclear threat and blackmail.”

The envoy said his country would continue to “march forward” making great advancements as the “world’s most powerful nuclear and military state,” but would do so as a responsible nuclear power.

North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations Ja
North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations Ja Song Nam listens to remarks delivered during a United Nations Security Council meeting about North Korea's nuclear program at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, Dec. 15, 2017.

Secretary Tillerson responded, saying Pyongyang’s unlawful acts cannot be ignored or explained away, and he emphasized the international community’s united opposition to a nuclear North Korea.

“They alone are responsible for these tensions; they alone must take responsibility for these tensions; and they alone can solve these tensions,” he said of the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.

Growing capabilities

“In 2017, the DPRK conducted activities related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs at an alarming and accelerated pace,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told council members. “Its actions show blatant disregard of the will and resolutions of the Security Council and undermines the international norm against nuclear testing.”

“The DPRK remains the only country to continue to break the norm against nuclear testing,” Guterres noted, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name.

On September 3, Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear test, setting off an underground explosion that registered a magnitude 6.1 on the seismic scale.

On November 28, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and later claimed that it now possessed the capability to strike any location in the continental United States, a claim that was denied by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday.

WATCH: Tillerson: North Korea Must 'Earn its Way Back' to the Negotiating Table

Mattis told Pentagon reporters that Pyongyang has “not yet shown to be a capable threat against” Washington.

Throughout the year, the regime has also conducted 20 ballistic missile launches, including the first tests of two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as well as new medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

No access to North Korea

International nuclear watchdog agency the IAEA has been unable to gain access to North Korea to verify the status of its nuclear program. It uses satellite imagery to help monitor developments.

The U.N. chief called on North Korea to comply with all Security Council resolutions and to allow space for the resumption of dialogue.

“While all concerned seek to avoid an accidental escalation leading to conflict, the risk is being multiplied by misplaced overconfidence, dangerous narratives and rhetoric, and the lack of communications channels,” Guterres cautioned.

Last week, his top political official, Jeffrey Feltman, traveled to Pyongyang for the first in-depth political exchange of views between U.N. and North Korean officials to take place in that country in almost eight years.

Feltman, the highest-ranking American at the U.N., told reporters earlier this week that he engaged in more than 15 hours of talks over several days with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Pak Myong Guk. He did not request a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“The North Korean interlocutors agreed it was important to prevent war,” Feltman said, but added they made no commitments toward talks.

VOA's Nike Ching at the State Department and Carla Babb at the Pentagon contributed to this report.