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White House Corrects Tillerson on Whether U.S. Will Talk to North Korea

Posted December 13, 2017 11:25 p.m. EST
Updated December 13, 2017 11:27 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are once again at odds over how to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea after Tillerson declared on Tuesday that the United States was ready to open talks with the North “without precondition.”

The secretary’s comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.

In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Trump’s position on North Korea had not changed — namely, that talks were pointless if the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, continued to menace his neighbors.

“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.”

It was only the latest example of a public rift between the president and his chief diplomat over North Korea.

In October, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to open diplomatic lines to Pyongyang. But this time, the comments follow reports that the White House is laying the groundwork for the secretary’s departure from the State Department and his replacement by Mike Pompeo, the CIA director.

White House officials were alarmed by Tillerson’s conciliatory tone, according to several people, because they feared that it would sow confusion among allies after Trump rallied them behind a policy of “maximum pressure.”

There were no signs that Tillerson intended to signal a change in policy. He was speaking to the Atlantic Council in what was billed as a wrap-up of foreign-policy challenges in the administration’s first year.

Asked about the prospects for diplomacy with the North, he said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

“Let’s just meet and let’s — we can talk about the weather if you want,” he continued. “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. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?”

To some extent, Tillerson was merely playing the role he has played throughout the administration’s confrontation with North Korea — the diplomat offering a softer line — while Trump and other White House officials warn about the consequences if North Korea does not back off.

But Tillerson indicated an urgency about getting to the table with North Korea, which officials said runs counter to the White House’s view that negotiations are unlikely to happen anytime soon, given Kim’s repeated tests of nuclear devices and ballistic missiles.

Tillerson did say that talks would only make sense if North Korea paused those tests.

Still, his statements reverberated in Beijing, where South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, was meeting with Chinese leaders about North Korea.

China has repeatedly urged the United States to meet with North Korea, proposing that the two sides agree to a “freeze-for-freeze” — freezing the North’s nuclear and missile tests in return for an agreement by the United States and South Korea to freeze joint military exercises.

Russia welcomed Tillerson’s remarks, saying they were an improvement over “the confrontational rhetoric we have heard so far,” according to Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin.

Adding to the muddled messages, Tillerson spoke a few hours after the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, offered a more hard-line version of the administration’s policy. He warned that time was running out to avoid a military confrontation with North Korea, and that China needed to do more to squeeze the North economically.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by a British think tank, Policy Exchange, McMaster singled out shipping companies that he said were smuggling goods to North Korea and helping it evade sanctions.

“A company whose ships would engage in that activity ought to be on notice that that might be the last delivery of anything they do for a long time, anywhere,” he said.

McMaster has been among the most hard-line among administration officials in his approach to North Korea, raising the prospect of preventive military strikes if the North appeared on the verge of launching a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

Tillerson, by contrast, has continued to probe for openings to North Korea — a strategy that people who know him said is rooted in his successful effort to free a detained American college student, Otto F. Warmbier, to the United States. Warmbier died days after his return from injuries suffered during his imprisonment in Pyongyang.

Tillerson has developed a close relationship with Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy, who held the secret talks with North Korean officials that resulted in the release of Warmbier. Yun, several officials said, is working hard to find an opening to North Korea, with Tillerson’s backing.

Analysts said there was nothing wrong with Tillerson’s emphasis on diplomacy, but that conditions for any meeting with North Korea were critical. The United States has insisted that North Korea must eventually relinquish its nuclear arsenal, which the North has steadfastly refused to do.

“There’s a middle ground between setting ridiculous preconditions for negotiations, and accepting North Korea’s terms,” said Daniel R. Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs in the Obama administration. “It’s very important that we not appear to be accepting North Korea’s terms for negotiations.”

Michael J. Green, a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration, said, “some communication and consultation with North Korea is appropriate. But there’s a big difference between that and a dramatic announcement about negotiations.”

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