U.S. in direct contact with North Korea, Tillerson says
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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, looks at Chinese President Xi Jinping walking to his seat during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Sept. 30, 2017.(Photo: Andy Wong, Pool)
For the first time, the Trump administration acknowledged Saturday that it is in “direct contact” with the North Korean government and has asked Pyongyang whether they would like to discuss their missile and nuclear tests.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Beijing when asked how the U.S. might start a dialog with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” he said.
The secretary spoke to reporters at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Beijing after meeting with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese leaders.
According to an Associated Press report in August, the U.S. and North Korea had been engaged in quiet discussions for months with regular diplomatic contact between the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy and a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission.
The public acknowledgement of contact with Pyongyang follows increasingly sharp verbal exchanges and personal insults between the two countries in recent weeks over North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile threats.
The exchanges have included threats by the North Korea to test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific and to shoot down U.S. military aircraft off its coast. The administration, for its part, has threatened a swift response.
President Trump referred to Kim Jong Un as “little rocket man” and tweeted last week that the North “won’t be around much longer” if they keep issuing threats.
Tillerson would not say if the North Koreans had responded to the U.S. overture for talks.
“We can talk to them,” he said, “We do talk to them.” Asked if the lines of communication run through China, he said, “directly,” adding, “we have our own channels.”
The secretary said it was important to lower the temperature after weeks of threats and counter-threats with Pyongyang.
“The whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” he said. “Obviously it would help If North Korea would stop firing its missiles, that would calm things down a lot.”
Asked if the appeal for calm should apply to President Trump, Tillerson replied: “I think everyone would like for it to calm down.”
Tillerson’s stop in the Chinese capital was helping lay the groundwork for a November state visit by Trump, part of a five-nation swing through Asia. Trump has pressed for sterner measures against the North by China, the North’s chief trading partner and source of aid and diplomatic support.
Beijing adamantly opposes steps that could bring down Kim’s government, but appears increasingly willing to tighten the screws. China has agreed to tough new U.N. penalties that would substantially cut foreign revenue for the isolated North.
On Thursday, Beijing ordered North Korean-owned businesses and ventures with Chinese partners to close by early January, days after it said it would cut off gas and limit shipments of refined petroleum products, effective Jan. 1. China made no mention of crude oil, which makes up the bulk of Chinese energy supplies to North Korea and is not covered by U.N. sanctions.
China has banned imports of North Korean coal, iron and lead ore, and seafood since early September. Still, Washington hopes China will exert even greater pressure.
China argues that sanctions alone cannot solve the impasse, and has urged Washington to cool its rhetoric and open a dialogue with North Korea. But the North is coming closer to having a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike America, and says it will only discuss the weapons programs if the U.S. abandons its “hostile policy” toward the North.
Tillerson affirmed that the U.S. would not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, while saying the Trump administration had no intention of trying to oust Kim.
Contributing: Associated Press
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