Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s public acknowledgment that the U.S. has direct channels to North Korea has underscored his role as an administration moderate when it comes to reining in the regime over its nuclear weapons.
After starting his term with a swing through Asia where he said talks with Pyongyang wouldn’t be productive, Tillerson, on a one-day trip to Beijing, left the door open to negotiations. That’s a stance that runs counter to what others in the U.S. administration — including President Donald Trump — have said.
“The first time I would have the opportunity to sit with the North Koreans it would be to say what do you want to talk about, because we haven’t even got that far yet,” Tillerson told reporters on Saturday in Beijing. The U.S. is in direct communication with the regime, he said, adding, “we can talk to them, we do talk to them.”
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” he said.
The remarks highlight the divergent views within Trump’s administration on how best to get Kim Jong Un to halt his weapons campaign after a series of missile launches and the test of his most powerful nuclear weapon yet. While some have left the door open to military action against the regime, others have warned that could set off a potentially devastating conflict in North Asia. At the same time, increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure have done little to force Kim to alter course.
Trump tweeted in August that “talking is not the answer,” while United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has said the time for dialogue is over and she’d “have no problem kicking it to” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Among senior Cabinet officials, Tillerson’s aversion to such language is shared only by Mattis, who said “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions” when he was asked about Trump’s tweet.
Tillerson is a chief architect of the administration’s “peaceful pressure campaign,” an initiative that seeks to use UN Security Council sanctions to try and choke North Korea’s economy while pressing countries to stop accepting North Korean guest workers and close the regime’s diplomatic outposts.
“Direct talks are good news during this time of increasing rhetoric as the channel could be used to avoid miscalculation,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Trump complimented Xi on his efforts to increase pressure on North Korea, and Tillerson’s comments during a trip to China could be a reminder the Trump administration is ready to talk if China increases the pressure,” he said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
While Tillerson has said similarly moderate things before — in August he noted North Korea’s “restraint” and said the U.S. wanted more goodwill gestures from the regime — his latest remarks in Beijing appeared tailored for a Chinese audience.
One goal of Tillerson’s trip to Beijing, where he spent less than 12 hours on the ground, appeared to be pressing China, North Korea’s chief financial backer, to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
While Tillerson and Chinese leaders didn’t mention North Korea in public remarks, he did raise the issue behind closed doors, according to a senior State Department official who asked not to be identified because the talks were private.
In a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson said “we are still waiting” for North Korea to show it’s ready to have a serious conversation about denuclearization, the official said.
Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow at China’s Foreign Ministry-affiliated China Institute of International Studies, said Tillerson’s remarks about direct channels to Pyongyang were “positive news.”
“At present it’s an impasse, neither the U.S. nor North Korea dares to initiate a war despite fierce rhetoric,” Shi said. “So whoever first offers to talk will have an advantageous position. Not only the moral ground, but also in a better position to guide negotiations. It’s wise for the Americans to openly acknowledge direct talks with the North.”
Nonetheless, any dialogue could be a long time coming. The U.S. insists negotiations must lead to denuclearization, while North Korea wants the world to accept it as a nuclear-armed state.
“I don’t see this as an opening at this time,” said Ruggiero, who spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government as an expert in the use of targeted financial measures. “The Trump administration should continue the robust pressure campaign that’s starting to produce results.”
After Tillerson spoke, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert sought to reduce expectations for a breakthrough, saying in a statement that North Korean leaders “have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.”
The war of words has escalated between Kim and Trump 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.”
Still, Tillerson said the most important thing is to ease the rhetoric. He didn’t directly respond to a question on whether Trump should tone down his comments.
“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.”
— With assistance by Ting Shi