Tillerson Offers a No-Preconditions Sit-Down With North Koreans: ‘Let’s Just Meet’

By Patrick Goodenough | December 13, 2017 | 4:33 AM EST

Kim Jong-un presides over a Dec. 13 ceremony, awarding commendations to personnel involved in the Nov. 29 test-firing of an intercontinential ballistic missile that flew further than any the regime has previously launched. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

(CNSNews.com) – Two months after President Trump chided him for “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with Kim Jong-un, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday the U.S. was ready to talk to the regime in Pyongyang without preconditions, arguing that it was unrealistic to expect it to be willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions at the outset.

“We’ve said from the diplomatic side we’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” Tillerson said after delivering a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“Let’s just meet,” he continued. “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?”

Then, he said, the sides can begin to lay out a roadmap.

“I don’t think – it’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your [nuclear] program,” Tillerson said. “They have too much invested in it.”

He added that Trump “is very realistic about that as well."


The response from the White House later Tuesday was less clear on that point, however.

“The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders 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.”

In his remarks at the think tank, Tillerson indicated that, while there’d be no precondition before talks got underway, once they began the North Koreans would be expected to ensure a period of calm.

“If there was any condition at all to this, it’s that, look, it’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks, you decide to test another device,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to talk if in the middle of our talks, you decide to fire another one [missile] off. So I think they clearly understand that if we’re going to talk, we have to have a period of quiet.”

Tillerson also underlined the importance of having a “very credible military alternative” ready in the event diplomacy fails.

“There are multiple military options that have been developed to deal with a failure on my part. That’s why I say we’re going to work hard to not fail.”

He added that Trump wants diplomacy to succeed “and he has encouraged our diplomatic efforts,” but that he was also determined to ensure the North Koreans “do not have a deliverable nuclear weapon to the shores of the United States.”

Trump has frequently criticized his predecessors for their unsuccessful efforts over a period of more than two decades to engage Pyongyang and lure it away from its nuclear program.

Tillerson referred to those failures, and observed that “the North Koreans have been masters at always gaming those talks.”

‘Now is not the time’

As recently as last week the State Department played down the likelihood of talks with the regime beginning anytime soon, and suggested a willingness to denuclearize was a prerequisite.

“We remain open to talks if they are serious about denuclearization,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a December 5 briefing. “The activities that they’ve been engaged in recently have shown that they are not interested, that they are not serious about sitting down and having conversations.”

A month earlier, Nauert said that both Trump and Tillerson “have been very clear on this matter, that now is not the time for talks.”

“At some point, if North Korea is showing that it is serious in its interest to denuclearize, perhaps we could look at doing that, but they’re still not showing any sign of seriousness on that matter,” she said on November 9.

“Now is not the time to sit down and have talks,” Nauert repeated. “We’d like to at some point if the time is right, but the time’s not right yet.”

Last October 1, Trump posted a tweet signaling his disapproval of diplomatic efforts.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” tweeted Trump, using a derisive epithet for Kim.  “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

In a subsequent tweet that day, Trump said that “being nice” to Kim had not worked in 25 years. “[W]hy would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail,” he said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow