“It is not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program,” Tillerson told a forum co-hosted by the Korea Foundation and the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington on Tuesday. “They have too much invested in it. The president is very realistic about that as well.”
The change of tone comes two weeks after North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Washington.
“We are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. And we are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions,” Tillerson said, adding that there would have to be a “period of quiet” without nuclear and missile tests to have productive discussions. He reiterated Washington’s position that it cannot accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.
“Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want. ... But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards.”
It remains unclear whether Tillerson made the remarks with US President Donald Trump’s approval. In October, Trump said Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea, just as the secretary of state said the US had backchannel communications with the North.
“The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement later Tuesday.
“North Korea is acting in an unsafe way. ... North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”
Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Tuesday that now is the “last, best chance to avoid conflict” with North Korea and “time is running out.”
Speaking at an event for the British think tank Policy Exchange, McMaster said that the US policy is focused on the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” not ousting Kim Jong-un. That includes potential action against companies that illegally do business with North Korea, along with continued pressure on China to help curb North Korea’s nuclear tests, he said.
Also on Tuesday, the United Nations’ political chief said that senior North Korean officials told him during his four-day visit to the country last week “that it was important to prevent war” over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former US diplomat who is the UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council privately that “how we do that” was the topic of more than 15 hours of discussions he had with the North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, Vice Minister Pak Myong-guk and other officials.
Feltman said he told the North Koreans “they need to signal that they’re willing now to go in a different direction, to start some kind of engagement, to start talking about talks.”
The North Koreans “did not offer any type of commitment” to future talks, but he believes he left “the door ajar,” Feltman said.
Meanwhile in Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim vowed to develop more nuclear weapons while awarding medals to scientists and officials who developed its latest ICBM.
“(Kim) solemnly declared that the development of new strategic weapon systems including A-bomb, H-bomb and ICBM Hwasong-15 ... completing the state nuclear force serve as a great historic victory of our party and people of the country achieved by the death-defying struggle at the cost of high price,” Kim was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency during a two-day munitions conference that ended Tuesday.
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com)