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US ready for unconditional talks with North Korea, Tillerson says

A North Korean People's Army service member photographs Republic of Korea Gen. Leem Ho-young, Combined Forces Command Deputy Commander; Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, United Nations Commander, Combined Forces Commander, and United States Forces Korea commander; and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Korean border located inside the Joint Security Area on Mar. 17, 2017.

SEAN K. HARP/U.S. ARMY

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 12, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to remove a major roadblock to talks with North Korea, saying the United States was willing to meet with the nuclear-armed country “without preconditions.”

Tillerson said President Donald Trump supports the position, which would reverse current and past administration policy that the U.S. won’t sit down with the North unless denuclearization is on the table.

The White House said later that the president’s views on North Korea have not changed.

Trump, who has previously undercut Tillerson, was silent on the issue on the format he usually turns to for foreign policy announcements — Twitter. He did, however, refer to North Korea as a “vile dictatorship” Tuesday as he signed a $700 billion defense authorization bill.

Tillerson’s remarks came two weeks after North Korea test-fired its most powerful missile, which experts said showed the potential to reach the U.S. East Coast.

“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 Tuesday in a speech at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

He said the North would need to hold off on its weapons testing. The reclusive state has test-fired more than 20 missiles so far this year, including the ICBM launched on Nov. 29. It also conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

“Let’s just meet and we can talk about the weather if you want to. We can talk about whether it’s a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about,” Tillerson said. “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.”

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. political chief who recently visited Pyongyang, said senior North Korean officials told him “it was important to prevent war.”

Feltman, a former American diplomat, said he stressed “the urgent need to prevent miscalculation and reduce the risk of conflict,” during more than 15 hours of discussions with North Korea’s foreign minister and other top officials.

He called on them to open communication channels, including suspended military hotlines and “to start some kind of engagement, to start talking about talks.”

“They did not offer any type of commitment to us at that point. They have to reflect on what we said with their own leadership,” he told reporters after privately briefing the U.N. Security Council. “I think we’ve left the door ajar, and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide.”

The developments suggested movement in the effort to resume dialogue with North Korea amid fears that the crisis over its nuclear weapons program is pushing the adversaries to the brink of military conflict.


TALKS ABOUT TALKS


Analysts said leader Kim Jong Un’s declaration last month that North Korea had completed its nuclear force after the last ICBM test laid the groundwork for easing tensions.

North Korea insists its nuclear program is not up for negotiation but has been widely expected to pursue talks after achieving its goal of developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. mainland. Experts say it hasn’t mastered all the technologies needed to deliver the weapon but is making faster-than-expected progress.

“The elements needed to begin dialogue are coming into view. Pyongyang and Washington seem to recognize that a diplomatic off ramp is needed to avoid a catastrophic confrontation,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a scholar at the Washington-based New America Foundation.

“The goal of denuclearization should remain the long-term objective, but it needs to be set aside because it’s currently not possible. It makes greater sense to focus on achievable goals,” she said in an email.

DiMaggio, who has participated in secret talks with the North Koreans, said a starting point could be an agreement to freeze the North’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for an adjustment in U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

The joint war games infuriate the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion despite Washington’s insistence that they’re solely for defensive purposes. Media reports in recent weeks have said the allies are considering a delay in upcoming drills known as Key Resolve until after the Winter Olympics, which begin in February.

The secretary of state insisted the U.S. goal remained denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But, he added, “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’ve too much invested in it. The president is very realistic about that as well.”

Trump has said in the past he’d be willing to talk to Kim Jong Un under the right conditions. But he also has unleashed a string of fiery threats, saying he’ll “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend the U.S. and its allies.

“The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later 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,” she added.

In October, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea after the secretary of state said the U.S. had backchannel communications with the reclusive state.

David Straub, a former State Department Korean affairs director, said he suspects that Tillerson was expressing his personal views and had not coordinated his statement with the White House.

Straub noted the North Koreans have used talks in the past to wring concessions from the West and said it would be a mistake to give them an unconditional seat at the table.

Straub, currently a visiting fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said such a move would also jeopardize recent momentum in efforts to get other nations to help implement economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure aimed at isolating the North.

“It ignores decades of North Korea’s behavior,” he said. “I think that North Korea’s main aim with its nuclear weapons program is to be able to fatigue the United States into accepting it as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.”

Tillerson also said Washington has discussed with Beijing how North Korea’s nuclear weapons might be secured in case of instability there — a rare admission that the two countries that backed opposing sides in the 1950-53 Korean War were discussing contingency plans.

“The most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons that they have already developed and ensuring that nothing falls into the hands of people who we would not want to have it. We’ve had conversations with the Chinese about how that might be done,” Tillerson said.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

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