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White House undercuts Tillerson on North

Denuclearization still precondition for talks, spokeswoman says
Dec 15,2017
Less than a day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested direct talks with North Korea “without preconditions,” the White House threw cold water on his diplomatic overtures, reiterating its hard-line stance.

“Given North Korea’s most recent missile test, clearly now is not the time,” a White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday.

The NSC spokesman emphasized that while Washington is open to the possibility of dialogue, North Korea must not only refrain from any further provocations, but also take “sincere and meaningful actions toward denuclearization.”

Two weeks after North Korea conducted its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch to date, Tillerson, addressing the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington Tuesday, suggested he is ready for a first meeting with North Korea, to “sit down and see each other face to face” and lay out “a road map of what we might be willing to work towards.”

Tillerson said that the only conditions, if any, would be for Pyongyang to signal it wants such dialogue, and also a “period of quiet,” in which North Korea refrains from any provocations such as “testing another device.”

In response to Tillerson’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement to reporters late Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s “views on North Korea have not changed.”

She continued, “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China and South Korea, but the entire world,” adding that the regime’s actions “are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”

“The secretary was not creating any new policy,” said U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a press briefing Wednesday, adding that the United States is working hard to exert maximum pressure on the North.

“We remain open to dialogue when North Korea is willing to conduct a credible dialogue on the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” she continued, saying that Washington is not “seeing any evidence that they are ready to sit down and have those kinds of conversations right now.”

North Korea halting its nuclear and missile tests, according to Nauert, would be a “show of good faith” and “a smart idea.”

This is not the first time that Trump and Tillerson do not appear to see eye-to-eye when it comes to North Korea. At the beginning of October, Trump tweeted that he told Tillerson “that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, adding, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Tillerson had been on a visit to China to tackle the North Korea issue and told reporters in Beijing that Washington has multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang.

But Trump has not yet publicly commented on Tillerson’s most recent diplomatic gesture to the North.

When asked about their apparently different approaches, Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Seoul Thursday, “South Korea and the United States have requested that North Korea halt its provocations and threats and return to dialogue as soon as possible.”

He continued, “We understand that the White House’s response reiterates this position. And State Secretary Tillerson also emphasized that in order for dialogue with North Korea to resume, it has to stop its provocations.”

A delegation of Russian defense officials, led by Victor Kalganov, vice director of Russia’s National Defense Command Center, arrived in Pyongyang Tuesday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported, just two weeks after a Russian congressional delegation visited the country.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov welcomed Tillerson’s calls for dialogue, Russian state media reported.

China also “welcomes all efforts that will help ease the tension and resolve the issue through dialogue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a press briefing Wednesday.

Beijing hopes that the United States and North Korea “will work towards the shared goal and make a meaningful step towards dialogue and engagement,” Lu said, adding that “China stands ready to continue to play a positive role in promoting the proper settlement of the relevant issue of the Korean Peninsula through peaceful means.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]