December 14, 2017 09:24
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered to hold unconditional talks with North Korea as tensions continue to mount over the North's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
"We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk and we're ready to have the first meeting without preconditions," Tillerson said Tuesday.
At a forum co-hosted by the Korea Foundation and the Atlantic Council in Washington, 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 have too much invested in it. And the president is very realistic about that as well." That would mark a striking departure from Washington's insistence that North Korea must dismantle its nuclear program first.
But the White House, in yet another instance of the chaos that reigns in the Trump administration, gave the proposal short shrift. "The president's views on North Korea have not changed," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
When Tillerson voiced willingness to hold talks with the North in October, President Donald Trump tweeted such efforts are a "waste of time." A spokesman for the National Security Council later told Reuters "clearly right now is not the time" for talks, and they can happen only if the North "fundamentally improves its behavior."
Tillerson himself only called for a break from North Korean provocations, saying, "It's going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device... If we're going to talk, we have to have a period of quiet... or it's going to be very difficult to have productive discussions."
In October, Tillerson apparently passed a message to North Korea via Russia that the U.S. is willing to talk if the North refrained from provocations for 60 days.
Tillerson said he will continue diplomatic efforts with North Korea "until the first bomb drops." But he added U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis will be successful when "his turn" comes if talks prove ineffective.
He also revealed that Washington is in discussions with Beijing about how to deal with regime collapse in the North.
"We have had conversations that if something happened, and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th parallel when whatever the conditions that caused that to happen," he said. He added that China is preparing to deal with a mass exodus of North Korean refugees across the border.
Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said at an event hosted by the U.K.'s Policy Exchange that this is the "last, best chance" to avoid conflict with North Korea and "time is running out."
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