Asia Pacific

In move that could alienate Japan, Tillerson says U.S. willing to talk to North Korea ‘without preconditions’

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In a shift that could put Washington at odds with Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to soften the United States’ approach to the North Korean crisis on Tuesday, offering to begin talks without preconditions, including its long-standing demand that Pyongyang first give up its nuclear weapons.

“We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without preconditions,” Tillerson said in a speech livestreamed from the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a roundtable if that’s what you’re excited about.”

The top U.S. diplomat’s comments struck a markedly different tone from past statements that have dismissed talks as unworkable unless the North first ditched its nuclear weapons. They also come just two weeks after Pyongyang, in what it characterized as a major “breakthrough,” test-fired a long-range missile that experts said could strike most, if not all, of the continental United States.

Tillerson said sitting down “face to face” could allow the U.S. and the North to “begin to lay out a map, a road map” for future engagement.

“It’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your (nuclear) program,” he said. “They have too much invested in it. And the president is very realistic about that as well.”

While reiterating that Washington’s ultimate goal remained the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Tillerson said the United States was “ready to talk any time they’re ready to talk,” but that Pyongyang must come to the table willing to make choices to change its course.

He did, however, lay down one condition, noting that there should be a “period of quiet” in which such preliminary talks could take place.

“It’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device,” he said. “We need a period of quiet.”

It was unclear what this meant, but the U.S. had earlier hinted that a 60-day pause to nuclear and missile tests might be enough to kick-start early talks. Before the North tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29, it had gone 75 days without conducting such tests, raising hopes of a fresh diplomatic opening.

Tokyo, however, may not be in the mood for talks.

Japan — especially Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — has been a vociferous advocate of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of using sanctions to rein in the North’s nuclear program.

Asked about Tillerson’s comments, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that Tokyo and Washington remain in “100 percent” agreement on the pressure stance.

A senior Foreign Ministry official echoed Suga’s statements Wednesday by stressing the importance of “continuing to pressure” North Korea to “denuclearize.”

Diplomatically speaking, “it’s very easy to be flexible,” the official said when asked for a reaction to Tillerson’s comments. “But it should be North Korea that acts flexibly.”

Ahead of talks, the official said, Japan and the U.S. must make “meaningful” progress on the nuclear issue.

But experts said it appeared that Japan had not been consulted before Tillerson’s remarks.

“This has surely blind-sided the Abe administration, which noted there was no point for talks, unless there was a deep and meaningful commitment to denuclearization,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

“Throw on top of this the potential suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and the pro-dialogue push from Seoul, Beijing and Moscow — and it appears that the Abe administration is being left out on a branch suddenly — a development which could do significant damage to the U.S.-Japan alliance, especially around questions of U.S. credibility and extended deterrence,” Miller added.

Washington has maintained that its commitment to defending its allies in Japan and South Korea remains “ironclad,” but North Korea’s rapid progress toward building a credible nuclear arsenal capable of hitting the U.S. has stoked concern in Tokyo and Seoul.

In a separate sign that Washington could be laying the groundwork for seizing the diplomatic initiative with Pyongyang, the top U.S. official for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, met with Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, for talks in Tokyo.

Yun was also expected to meet Thursday with North Korean Foreign Ministry officials in Chiang Mai, Thailand, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported late Tuesday, citing unidentified diplomatic sources.

Tillerson, for his part, said the U.S. “would continue our diplomatic efforts until the first bomb drops.”

In the meantime, he said, “our military preparation is strong. A full range of contingencies are available and they are ready.”

The United States, Japan and South Korea have ramped up joint military exercises, with Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets training with U.S. strategic bombers and advanced stealth aircraft Tuesday in a show of force.

In his speech, Tillerson acknowledged the importance of the trilateral relationship if the campaign was to bear any fruit.

“This is the basis for the security structure of the region … and we continue to exercise together so that we are ready for any possible military response that might be required.”

It was not immediately clear whether Tillerson, whose influence has appeared to wane within the White House, had the backing of Trump to make such a radical shift.

The White House issued an ambiguous statement after Tillerson’s remarks that left unclear whether Trump had given his blessing for the speech.

“The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” the statement said. “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China and South Korea, but the entire world. North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”

Tillerson had previously expressed a desire to reopen shuttered diplomatic channels with Pyongyang, but was called out by Trump over any attempt at doing so.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man … Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Trump tweeted in October, using his derisive nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Some analysts said the abrupt about-face had left them wondering if the remarks had been sanctioned by the White House.

“Of course, the question remaining here is how much was Tillerson — who looks like his job is in jeopardy — freelancing on this,” the Japan Institute of International Affairs’ Miller said. “There is a real possibility that others in the Trump administration may walk this back in the coming days.”

Tillerson said there were also other uncertainties, given that “we are dealing with a new leader in North Korea that no one ever engaged with.

“He clearly is not like his father, nor is he like his grandfather,” he said, referring to the current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il and the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

North Korea has repeatedly said in state-run media that the U.S. must first end its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang before it would agree to any talks. Observers have said that it likely had little interest in negotiations with Washington until it has mastered the ability to hit the whole of the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile, something some experts say it has yet to achieve.

Kim on Tuesday vowed to “win victory in the showdown” against the U.S. by continuing to manufacture more of the “latest weapons and equipment” to “bolster up the nuclear force in quality and quantity,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

During his speech, Tillerson also revealed — apparently for the first time — that the U.S. and China had been talking about how the two would deal with the eruption of conflict or regime collapse in North Korea.

He said the most “important thing” to the U.S. “would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed, and that nothing falls into hands of” nonstate actors.

The Trump administration, Tillerson said, had assured Beijing that if U.S. troops were forced to move above the 38th parallel that divides the two Koreas to do so, American forces would pull back once the mission was complete.

“That is our commitment we made to them. Our only objective is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, and that is all,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson’s comments come just days after United Nations political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman — America’s highest-ranking national in the U.N. Secretariat — returned from a visit to Pyongyang.

Feltman was quoted Tuesday as saying that North Korean officials had told him it was important to prevent war but offered no concrete proposal for talks.

“They listened seriously to our arguments,” Feltman said, though acknowledging that “they did not offer any type of commitment to us at that point.”

“I think they have to reflect on what we said with their own leadership,” he added.

He said he had urged Pyongyang to “signal that it was prepared to consider engagement” with world powers and that the United Nations could help.

“Time will tell what was the impact of our discussions, but I think we’ve left the door ajar,” he said.

“I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide.”

Staff writer Daisuke Kikuchi contributed to this report