The White House on Monday poured more cold water on potential talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program just days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington was in direct contact with leader Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The move came as North Korean state media threatened Japan with “nuclear clouds” and lambasted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for maximum pressure on the isolated nation.
“Now is not the time to talk,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Monday, further reinforcing President Donald Trump’s view that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” a mocking reference to Kim.
Trump on Sunday had dismissed Tillerson’s earlier comments that the U.S. was probing Pyongyang’s interest in talks, urging him to save his energy.
“We’ll do what has to be done!” Trump tweeted.
The North conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test — purportedly of a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb — on Sept. 3, and has launched dozens of missiles this year — including two over Japan — as it moves closer to mastering the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
In July, it conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the United States.
Pyongyang maintains that its nuclear and missile programs are crucial to the Kim regime’s survival and has ruled out denuclearization — a key condition for the U.S. in any talks with the North — calling its atomic arsenal a “war deterrent.”
Asked about Trump’s and Tillerson’s remarks, Sanders said that the focus of any conversations with the North had been and will continue to be on the three Americans detained in the reclusive country.
“The only conversations that have taken place, or that would . . . be on bringing back Americans who have been detained,” Sanders said, according to a transcript of her news conference. “Like with Otto (Warmbier), those were the type of conversations that this administration was willing to have. Beyond that, there will be no conversations with North Korea at this time.”
Warmbier, a U.S. college student, was jailed in Pyongyang in 2016 for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel while visiting the country. He was released on medical grounds in June but arrived home seriously ill and died days later, a fate his parents and Trump blamed on torture, but which medical examiners could not confirm.
Sanders’ comments stood in stark contrast to Tillerson’s remarks over the weekend in Beijing, where he told reporters: “We can talk to them, we do talk to them directly” and that the U.S. has “a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”
The Trump administration has appeared to settle into a policy of pressuring Kim’s regime into returning to the negotiating table — on Washington’s terms — heaping both stringent unilateral and United Nations sanctions onto the country.
Trump has also variously threatened it with “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy” the country of 25 million people if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, including Japan. He has repeatedly said that all options — including military action — remain on the table for reining in its nuclear weapons ambitions. And in another tweet late last month, the U.S. president also appeared to advocate regime change, saying that Kim and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho “won’t be around much longer” after Ri hinted at a possible nuclear weapons test over the Pacific Ocean.
Still, Sanders stressed that the White House’s approach does not mean an end to diplomacy and suggested that efforts to pressure the Kim regime will continue.
“There’s a difference between talking and putting diplomatic pressure. We still strongly support putting diplomatic pressure on North Korea, which we’re continuing to do,” Sanders said.
“We’ve encouraged all of our allies and partners to do more, and we’re going to continue to keep all options on the table when it comes to that,” she added.
In response to the increasingly fraught security environment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has forged close ties with the mercurial Trump in a bid to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The Japanese leader has hewed closely to Washington’s calls for the North to denuclearize, issuing a stern speech at the U.N. General Assembly and even going so far as to write in an editorial in The New York Times last month that pressure, not diplomacy, should be prioritized.
“Dialogue,” Abe wrote, referencing past diplomatic failures, “will not work with North Korea.”
Late Monday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency blasted Abe’s stance, calling the tactic a “suicidal deed” that “will bring nuclear clouds” to the country.
The KCNA commentary ripped into Abe’s moves, characterizing him as “running around the U.N. stage like a headless chicken” for meetings with world leaders on the North Korean issue and blasting the prime minister as using the crisis to win votes ahead of an Oct. 22 Lower House election.
“Japan’s such rackets inciting the tension of the Korean Peninsula is a suicidal deed that will bring nuclear clouds to the Japanese archipelago,” the commentary said.
“No one knows when the touch-and-go situation will lead to a nuclear war, but if so, the Japanese archipelago will be engulfed in flames in a moment.”
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