Tillerson Says He Would Meet With North Koreans, Even Without Denuclearization Talks

Dec 12, 2017
Originally published on December 12, 2017 4:10 pm

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. would negotiate with North Korea without demanding that the country first agree to nuclear disarmament. This marks a significant change in a approach for Tillerson, who has spent much of this year working on the pressure campaign to cut off financial resources for the North Korean nuclear program.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he wants to meet with the North Koreans, and it doesn't have to be about denuclearization, at least not right away. It's a significant change in an approach for a secretary who has spent much of this year working on the pressure campaign to cut off financial resources for the North Korean nuclear program. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Tillerson used to say he doesn't want to negotiate his way back to the negotiating table, but when he addressed the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, he said he's ready to talk whenever North Korea is.

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REX TILLERSON: 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. 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.

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KELEMEN: He says it's not realistic for the U.S. to say it's only going to talk to North Korea if Pyongyang signals first that it's willing to give up its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. has to start somewhere, he says, and it has never really negotiated with Kim Jong Un.

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TILLERSON: And so it's really about how do you even begin the process of engagement because we're dealing with a new leader in North Korea that no one's ever engaged with. And he clearly is not like his father.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

TILLERSON: Nor is he like his grandfather. And we don't know a whole lot about what it will be like to engage with him.

KELEMEN: It will also be tough to talk, Tillerson says, if North Korea continues to fire off missiles or test nuclear devices. There has to be a period of quiet, he says. The idea of talks about talks is something Suzanne DiMaggio supports. She's a senior fellow at a think tank called New America and has been part of so-called Track II diplomacy with North Korea. She says the Trump administration has been sending mixed signals with the president once tweeting that Rex Tillerson is wasting his time.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: Clearly there's a need for this administration to speak with one voice and stop this contradictory signaling. I think it's high time for the president to move from what I would call a dithering approach to a real strategy and empower our diplomats to carry that strategy out.

KELEMEN: Tillerson plans to go later this week to the United Nations for a high-level security council meeting on North Korea. A top U.N. diplomat and former State Department official, Jeffrey Feltman, is just back from Pyongyang, and the U.N. says he's calling for open channels to reduce the risks of conflict. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.