Tillerson Says U.S. Talking With North Korea on Nuke Program

  • Situation with Pyongyang is ‘a bit overheated right now’
  • Top diplomat also meets with China’s Xi ahead of Trump visit

The U.S. is communicating with North Korea about its nuclear program and testing Pyongyang’s appetite for negotiations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in the first public acknowledgment by a senior administration official of direct contact on the matter.

A State Department spokeswoman later tamped down prospects for a breakthrough in the tense relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Tillerson, speaking to reporters on Saturday after meeting Chinese officials in Beijing, insisted that the U.S. would never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. His remarks offered the clearest glimpse so far into U.S. strategy, and suggested a willingness to get to the negotiating table with Kim Jong Un’s regime -- even after President Donald Trump tweeted in August that “talking is not the answer!”

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson said. “We can talk to them, we do talk to them directly, through our own channels,” adding that the U.S. has “a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”

The U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in North Korea and often relays messages to the regime through the embassy of Sweden. Joseph Yun, Tillerson’s special representative for North Korea policy, has communicated privately with North Korea, often through Pyongyang’s mission to the United Nations in New York, but the exchanges were generally believed to be limited to the issue of detained Americans.

UN Sanctions

North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3, and has launched more than a dozen missiles this year as Kim seeks the capability to hit the continental U.S. with an atomic weapon. The UN has imposed stringent sanctions on North Korea for its weapons tests, and Trump has said all options -- including military ones -- are on the table.

North Korea has also threatened in recent days to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test. Asked if such a test would be a “red line” for the U.S. and its military, Tillerson responded: “That will be the commander in chief’s decision -- as far as I know, the commander in chief has delivered no red lines.”

The war of words has escalated between the two leaders in recent weeks, with Trump labeling Kim “Rocket Man,” and saying in his first speech to the UN that the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacks. Kim responded by calling Trump a “dotard” and warning of the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”

In a mild rebuke to Trump, Tillerson said the most important thing at this point is to ease the rhetoric and tension on the peninsula, because the situation is “a little overheated right now.” Asked if Trump should tone down his comments, Tillerson didn’t answer directly.

“The whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” he said. “Everyone would like for it to calm down. Obviously it would help for North Korea to stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot.”

To read more on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, click here.

Tillerson’s remarks followed meetings in Beijing with President Xi Jinping and China’s top foreign policy officials, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, to prepare for Trump’s visit in November.

In public comments before their meetings, neither the Chinese leaders nor Tillerson mentioned North Korea, focusing instead on getting ready for the trip. Trump’s first visit to Asia as president will take him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, the White House said on Friday.

The U.S. and North Korea remain at an impasse over the fate of negotiations: Tillerson said the U.S. won’t accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, while Kim’s regime says it will never give up the weapons. The government has even enshrined its nuclear-armed status in its constitution.

“They can change their constitution,” Tillerson said. “They created it, they can change it, especially the guys running North Korea, it’s pretty easy for them to change it.”

Still, Tillerson sounded more measured than other members of Trump’s administration. He said that if he were to sit down with North Korea he would ask “what do you want to talk about -- because we haven’t even got that far yet.”

“You’d be foolish to say you’re going to sit down and so, OK, done, nuclear weapons gone,” Tillerson said. “This is going to be a process of engagement with North Korea” that will be done in steps, he said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also suggested that a new era in U.S.-North Korean relations isn’t imminent.

“Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilizing forces north of the DMZ, North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization,” she said in an email.

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio

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