Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a news conference in Beijing on Saturday that, despite the high degree of tension between the United States and North Korea, lines of communication to Pyongyang remain open and the U.S. is ready to talk.
“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation or a blackout. We have a couple of direct channels to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them. Directly, through our own channels,” said Tillerson, as quoted by CNN.
“I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down. They’re a little overheated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first,” he said.
When a reporter asked if Tillerson thought President Trump should tone down his rhetoric as well, Tillerson replied, “I think the whole situation is a bit overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down.”
“Obviously, it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot,” he added in a somewhat jocular manner.
CNN notes that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert rushed to clarify that Pyongyang is not using any of those open channels:
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.
Tillerson spoke from the residence of the U.S. ambassador to China, after visiting Beijing for a meeting with top Chinese leaders. The Secretary of State took pains during his press conference to emphasize that America’s line of communication to North Korea is “direct” and does not run through China. His Chinese hosts said very little about North Korea in their own public comments.
The New York Times notes that Tillerson “gave no indication of what the administration might be willing to give up if talks began,” although the NYT quotes broad speculation that the U.S. might agree to hold off on joint military exercises with South Korea in the spring. North Korea perpetually complains about such exercises and demands their permanent cancellation.
It is also unclear what Kim Jong-un would be willing to give up, since he has repeatedly stated his nuclear missile program is non-negotiable, and the North Koreans have not discussed any other potential concessions.
The NYT cites a study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies that found “at times of diplomatic engagement with the United States, North Korean provocations usually decline.” Another way of phrasing that point is that North Korea loves “diplomatic engagement” that accomplishes little besides giving them more time to work on nuclear missiles, and goes crazy with provocations when the U.S. and its allies become skeptical of fruitless negotiations. North Korea should be condemned for blackmailing the civilized world, not congratulated for refraining from threats to blow up Seoul, Guam, and Japan when negotiations are in progress.
President Trump responded to Tillerson’s comments on Twitter, where he described Tillerson as “our wonderful Secretary of State” but said he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
“Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now. Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail,” said Trump. “Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.”
CNN portrayed Trump’s tweets as “undermining his secretary of state,” as they seemed to “directly counter Tillerson’s stated goal to use direct communication to lower tension between the two hostile nations.”
However, Tillerson and Nauert pointedly stated that North Korea is not taking advantage of the open lines of communication. Nauert, in fact, went on Twitter herself Sunday to insist there was no great conflict between the president and secretary of state, insisting that North Korea “will not obtain a nuclear capability,” and it’s up to the Kim regime to decide whether that happens “through diplomacy or force.”
“Diplomatic channels are open for Kim Jong-un for now. They won’t be open forever,” she tweeted.
The White House also took steps to emphasize that President Trump retains full confidence in Secretary of State Tillerson.
The New York Times made a few observations that would seem to favor Trump’s approach over Tillerson’s, noting that North Korea might feel it has an incentive to develop nuclear weapons that can hit the United States to give itself more leverage in future negotiations. Also, Tillerson’s talk of keeping direct channels open might jeopardize the political position of allies such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has declared dialogue will not work with North Korea.