(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is prepared to negotiate with North Korea without preconditions, but the Trump administration would first want a “quiet period” without nuclear or missile tests for discussions with Kim Jong Un’s regime to begin.
“Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want," Tillerson said in a speech Tuesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "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 has regularly called for diplomacy with the isolated nation and the White House played down the prospect of a policy shift. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders followed the remarks by saying Trump’s views hadn’t changed, reflecting that the administration wanted to make clear Tillerson was not signaling a major change in U.S. policy.
"North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world," she said. "North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea."
Tillerson said earlier in the day that he’s pleased with the progress so far in ramping up pressure on North Korea, an effort that relies largely on tougher United Nations sanctions and greater cooperation with China. He said more than 22 countries -- including Peru and Mexico -- have so far sent North Korean diplomats home, and described the new sanctions regime as “extreme.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday that China welcomed all efforts to resolve the issue through dialogue and hopes the U.S. and North Korea could “walk in the same direction, taking some meaningful steps toward dialogue and contact.”
Meanwhile, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun is expected to meet Thursday with North Korean foreign ministry officials in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified diplomatic sources.
“It’s really about how do you begin the process of engagement because we’re dealing with a new leader in North Korea that no one’s ever engaged with,” Tillerson said. “My expectations of how to start is first I have to know who my counterpart is.”
While Tillerson said he was willing to meet North Korean officials, he made clear that the U.S. refuses to accept an outcome that leaves the country with nuclear weapons. North Korea must be ready to “make a different” choice with regards to its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs for talks to continue, Tillerson said.
And while advocates for negotiations will be encouraged by the secretary’s remarks, he was also clear that talks wouldn’t be possible without a pause in testing by the North. The last time such a test occurred was in late November, when North Korea fired a missile that analysts say may put the entire continental U.S. in range.
“We continue to indicate to them, we need a period of quiet, you need to tell us you want to talk, the door’s open, we’ll show up when you tell us you’re ready to talk,” Tillerson said. An “important part of our diplomatic success is that we have a strong military presence standing behind us so that if North Korea makes bad choices, we’re prepared,” he added.
Tillerson’s remarks echoed those made by Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, who said last week that North Korea needs to renounce further nuclear or missile tests before sitting down for talks. He called Kim’s push for nuclear weapons “the biggest threat to humankind right now.” Six-party negotiations with North Korea over its weapons programs haven’t taken place since 2009.
Tillerson’s comments come just days after the United Nations envoy to North Korea, Jeffrey Feltman, returned from visiting Pyongyang. On Tuesday he told the UN Security Council that he was unsure about the impact of his discussions there.
"I think we’ve left the door ajar," Feltman said. "I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide."
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