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A pre-emptive US military strike against North Korea may be necessary if the threat posed by its nuclear weapons programme reaches a level that “requires action”, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has warned.

Speaking in Seoul on the second day of a visit to the Asia-Pacific region, Tillerson said Washington’s policy of “strategic patience” towards the regime in Pyongyang had ended.

In his strongest comments yet on concerns that North Korea is moving closer towards developing a nuclear strike capability that could threaten the US mainland, Tillerson said “all options are on the table”.

“Certainly we do not want to, for things to get to military conflict,” he said at a joint press conference with South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se.

“If they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, then that option’s on the table.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures.

Those words hint at a departure from the North Korea policy pursued by the Obama administration, which sought to use multilateral sanctions to pressure the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, into agreeing to denuclearisation in exchange for aid and investment.

But over the past 11 years, North Korea has responded by carrying out five nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches, and made it clear it is not prepared to relinquish weapons of mass destruction in the face of American “hostility”.

Tillerson said North Korea could no longer be allowed to continue developing its nuclear and missile technology. “That would leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat,” he said.

The failure of Obama’s isolationism sparked speculation that the US would adopt a fresh approach towards North Korea under Donald Trump.

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