Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is “ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk … without precondition,” in a surprising change for a member of the Trump administration.
The offer to North Korea comes amid crippling sanctions on the country and high tension over its nuclear weapons program — and just after another intercontinental ballistic missile test just two weeks ago.
“Let’s just meet and we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about,” Tillerson said at the Atlantic Council in Washington Tuesday. “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 roadmap of what we might be willing to work toward?”
The new message stands in contrast to President Donald Trump’s warnings that talks have failed and that Tillerson was wasting his time — another sign of policy difference between the president and his top diplomat.
But it also is a change from Tillerson’s own previous comments that the U.S. would not negotiate its way to the negotiating table with North Korea and that it would only talk once the regime was ready to address its denuclearization.
Tillerson added later, “If there was any condition at all to this is that, ‘Look, it’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device.'” There needed to be a “period of quiet,” he said, “or it’s going to be very difficult to have productive discussions.”
Tillerson didn’t outline any timelines or metrics for how long that period should be.
This apparent shift — removing the commitment to denuclearize as a precondition to talking — was also a practical idea, according to Tillerson. “It’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it,” he said.
“The president is very realistic about that as well,” he added, although Trump has tweeted the opposite before — arguing that talks will not work.
“Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid,” he tweeted on Oct. 7. “… [It] hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
It was unclear then what the “one thing” was.
Still, the final goal for the administration has not changed, with the ultimate objective continuing to be the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — and Tillerson said he remains optimistic diplomatic efforts can achieve that. He said Trump is calling on China to cut off the flow of oil to North Korea to accelerate that effort.
It was not clear whether Tillerson was speaking off the cuff or meant to signal a shift in policy. The State Department has not yet returned a request for clarification.
But the White House said Trump has not changed his position.
“The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world. North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”
Tillerson also addressed the U.S.’s relationship with China amid the tension with North Korea. He said the two countries have had talks about how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of the regime’s collapse — with the U.S. reassuring China that it would retreat back below the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea if it ever had to invade the North.
The Chinese are also working on their own contingency plans to deal with a massive flow of North Korean refugees into China if the regime fell apart, Tillerson said.