Asia Pacific

North Korean missiles fly, but talks still on Tillerson’s mind

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday he holds out hope for talks with nuclear-armed North Korea despite its “provocative act” Saturday of firing three short-range missiles.

“We are going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign as I have described that working with allies, working with China as well, to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table, with a view to begin a dialogue on the different future for (the) Korean Peninsula and for North Korea,” Tillerson said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Tillerson said Saturday’s launches were a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, “and we do view it as a provocative act, a provocative act against the United States and our allies.”

The U.S. Pacific Command said two missiles flew 250 km (155 miles) while the other appeared to have blown up immediately.

South Korea on Monday revised its assessment of what the North fired over the weekend, saying that the projectiles were likely short-range ballistic missiles, the South’s Yonhap news reported. There had been confusion about what was launched, with the South’s presidential office saying at one point that they were “presumed” to be from a 300 mm multiple artillery rocket launch system while the U.S. military said short-range missiles had been fired.

The brief hiatus in the North’s missile launches came to an end just days after the United States’ top diplomat praised recent “restraint” by Pyongyang over its apparent period of detente with the U.S.

It also came amid the joint U.S.-South Korean Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises, which are due to wrap up this Thursday.

While a violation of U.N. resolutions, the firing of short-range missiles is generally seen as far less provocative than longer-range weapons that can target both the U.S. and Asian allies Japan and South Korea.

“I don’t know that we’re wrong,” Tillerson said Sunday of his earlier comments that Pyongyang was restraining itself. “I think it’s going to take some time to tell.”

Still, the top U.S. diplomat’s remarks appeared to highlight that the door to dialogue with the North remained open despite the recent launches and heated rhetoric with Washington, including the announcement of a plan to shower the area around the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with four missiles that would overfly Japan.

Tillerson said last week that he was “pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past,” adding that “perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, who had vowed to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it endangered the United States, also appeared to tamp down his rhetoric last week, expressing cautious hope for a possible improvement in relations with Pyongyang by telling a campaign rally that Kim “is starting to respect us.”

“And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about,” Trump said of the two countries’ relationship.

In his interview Sunday, Tillerson also appeared to hint that the North’s immediate denuclearization might not necessarily be a prerequisite for the start of long-stalled talks aimed at solving the crisis.

“No one wants to see a nuclear Korean Peninsula. So, we are all unified in our mission to say denuclearize (the) Korean Peninsula,” he said. “We hope for the opportunity to engage with them as to how we might achieve that.”

North Korea has been one of the Trump administration’s top foreign policy objectives, a mission that has taken on increased focus after it conducted two test-firings of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last month.

Experts said the second launch saw the missile fly higher and longer than the first, and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — potentially within range of Pyongyang’s ever-improving weapons systems.

The White House has said that all options remain on the table, including military action, stoking concerns of a second Korean War that say would devastate the region.

Analysts say the U.S. has been consistent in its messaging, even if the signals have been somewhat confusing.

“Washington maintains a willingness to talk to Pyongyang and has always sought a diplomatic solution, even if most attention has been focused on the more truculent statements by the president,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS.

Glosserman said that if the North Koreans seek or prefer a diplomatic solution — as they have claimed — then they will take whatever opportunity is offered to pursue it.

“In other words, if Pyongyang really wants to make a deal, then it would take Tillerson’s offer, or whatever it can identify as an offer, and use that as the basis for action,” he said.