Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, has revealed that the Trump administration has opened new channels of communication with Pyongyang and was trying to examine the possibility of talks with North Korea about the regime’s nuclear programme.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Mr Tillerson told reporters during a visit to China, according to Reuters. “We ask: Would you like to talk? We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation.”
The comments mark the first time that the Trump administration has suggested that there were active communications with Pyongyang about the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. Previously, Mr Tillerson had suggested that the US would only consider negotiations if North Korea halted its missile and nuclear tests.
Heather Nauert, state department spokesperson, later said that while Washington maintained open channels with North Korea, Pyongyang had shown no interest in entering into negotiations.
“Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilising forces north of the DMZ, North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding de-nuclearisation,” said Ms Nauert.
The US has for years held low-level talks with North Korean officials via the “New York channel” — a reference to North Korean diplomats serving at their country’s mission to the UN. But Mr Tillerson said the US had “three channels open to Pyongyang” suggesting that the Trump administration had held separate discussions.
Dennis Wilder, former top White House Asia adviser to George W Bush, said the three channels could refer to the New York channel, in addition to the North Korean embassy in Beijing and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.
The US has previously rejected a Chinese and Russian proposal whereby North Korea freezes its weapons programmes in exchange for the US and South Korea temporarily stopping their frequent large joint military exercises. But Mr Wilder said there might be room for flexibility in terms of the size of the exercises, which anger Pyongyang every year.
“The US is probing to see if there is room for negotiation,” said Mr Wilder. “Just because freeze for freeze has been rejected, it does not mean the US would not reduce or modify exercises.”
Tensions have escalated dramatically in recent months as North Korea has launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles with sufficient range to hit the US, and conducted its sixth — and most powerful — nuclear test. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, have also exchanged heated rhetoric in recent weeks.
After Mr Trump described Mr Kim as “Rocket Man . . . on a suicide mission” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, Mr Kim responded by calling the US president a “mentally deranged dotard” while his foreign minister said Pyongyang would consider responding by detonating a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Speaking in Beijing where he was arranging Mr Trump’s November visit to China, Mr Tillerson said it was crucial to ease the recent spike in tensions. According to Reuters, when asked if that also applied to Mr Trump, he said: “I think the whole situation’s a bit overheated right now.”
“I think everyone would like for it to calm down . . . Obviously it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot.”
To send a strong signal to Mr Kim about the repercussions of threatening the US, the Pentagon has been conducting increasingly frequent high-profile exercises around the Korean peninsula, sometimes with Japan and South Korea. Last weekend, US warplanes flew farther north from the demilitarised zone — that separates South and North Korea — than at any point in the 21st century.
At the same time, the US is leading a global campaign to ratchet up economic pressure on North Korea in an effort to squeeze the regime, cut off funding for weapons programmes, and force Pyongyang to the negotiating table. The UN has imposed two sets of harsh sanctions that — combined with previous measures — embargo 90 per cent of North Korean exports. The US has also imposed unilateral sanctions and has punished Chinese and Russian companies that have been accused of facilitating weapons development in North Korea.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi