Report

Tillerson Open to Talks With North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State says he'll talk "until the first bomb drops," redoubling a diplomatic effort to defuse the threat of a nuclear showdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a forum on U.S.-South Korea relations at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 12. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a forum on U.S.-South Korea relations at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 12. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson swung the door wide open to negotiations with North Korea, saying on Tuesday he is open to talks without preconditions as soon as Pyongyang signals it is ready.

“We’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” Tillerson said Tuesday at an event at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington. “Let’s just meet. And we can talk about the weather if you want. 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,” he said.

Though he later appeared to suggest a condition to the offer of talks — calling for a freeze in North Korean missile tests — Tillerson’s remarks were one of the clearest diplomatic overtures to date from the Trump administration to Pyongyang. He said President Donald Trump, who has heightened fears of war with North Korea through his own verbal and Twitter volleys, “is pretty realistic” about the need to open a dialogue with Pyongyang.

“I will continue our diplomatic efforts until the first bomb drops,” Tillerson said. “I’m going to be confident that we’re going to be successful, but I’m also confident [Defense Secretary James] Mattis will be successful if it ends up being his turn,” he said, alluding to ongoing contingency planning for a military solution to the impasse.

Since February, North Korea has launched 23 missiles in 16 tests, raising the specter of war on the Korean peninsula. The most recent missile test, on Nov. 29, showcased a new design that flew high and far enough to potentially hit Washington.

As North Korea makes strides in its nuclear weapons and missile programs, Tillerson has led a months-long campaign to tighten the economic and diplomatic noose around North Korea in an effort to bring it to the negotiating table. It’s one of the few bright spots for the Trump administration’s otherwise mixed bag on foreign policy. But it’s also been undercut at times by Trump’s own dismissive attitude toward diplomacy.

Among the wins in the pressure campaign: Italy, Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Kuwait have all expelled their North Korean ambassadors. Other countries have expelled North Korean laborers and cut off limited trade with Pyongyang, both seen as key revenue sources for Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“We know the regime notices when that ambassador comes home,” Tillerson said.

Experts say those small wins can add up to a lot, even if it’s a tough slog. “It’s a monumental task,” said Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security. “There’s a lot of legal impediments, there are a lot of diplomatic impediments, but I think in general there’s definitely some progress under Secretary Tillerson.”

But even with all that diplomatic spadework, Tillerson still has an uphill battle ahead of him. Cronin said diplomacy may result in “only a sliver of a deal” without ultimately resolving the crisis, but it’s still worth pursuing to avert war. It’s hardly the first time that a U.S. administration has sought to open discussions with North Korea with few preconditions; Tillerson’s predecessor Colin Powell did so in 2001.

The wild card in the showdown is China, which has thrown the North Korean regime a key economic and diplomatic lifeline despite constant pressure from the United States and its allies to reverse course, fearing a sudden collapse across the border could trigger a refugee exodus.

This year, China has shown signs of being more willing to put pressure on Pyongyang. China has slashed exports of textiles, coal, oil, and fuel, and has also clamped down on North Korean forced labor. Tillerson said he and Trump were pushing China to further slash its oil exports to North Korea as a next step.

“The fact that China is doing as much as it is, even if we’re not sure how much that is and even if its never enough, it’s more than it’s ever done before,” Cronin said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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