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Tillerson to North Korea: 'Can We at Least Sit Down and See Each Other Face-to-Face?'

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the 2017 Atlantic Council Korea Foundation Forum in Washington on Dec. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday he’s ready to talk with North Korea sans any preconditions about their nuclear program, prompting the White House to come back with a statement stressing “the president’s views on North Korea have not changed.”

Tillerson told the Atlantic Council’s Korea Foundation Forum that “the diplomacy is underway” with Pyongyang and “it has been underway.”

“In fact, the entire sanctions regime, the pressure campaign, that is a piece of diplomacy — it is how to create an understanding on the part of the North Koreans that the world does not accept this, so that they understand that if they continue, the isolation just continues,” he said. “So that in and of itself is diplomacy, and it was – and was a very deliberate decision taken at the outset of the policy itself, is that simply picking up the phone and calling Kim Jong-un back in February when — and March when we first were developing this — and saying ‘hey, we really don’t like those nuclear tests you’re doing, can we sit down and talk’ probably was not going to get anyone to the table.”

Tillerson acknowledged that “the North Koreans have been masters at always gaming those talks.”

“And they have never proven to be a reliable counterparty. So we decided we were going to undertake this very intensive campaign of sanctions this time, but it was only going to be successful if first we built up very broad international participation,” he added. “…The president would like to see China cut the oil off. The last time the North Koreans came to the table, it was because China cut the oil off. Three days later, the North Koreans were at the table talking. And the president feels we’re really at that stage. So he’s putting a lot of pressure on the Chinese to do more with respect to oil.”

As to when such talks might begin, the secretary of State said that “from the diplomatic side we’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, 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. But can we at least sit down and see each other face-to-face? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a roadmap of what we might be willing to work towards,” he said. “It’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it. And the president is very realistic about that as well.”

“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 nor is he like his grandfather, and we don’t know a whole lot about what it will be like to engage with him. And that’s why I think my expectations of how to start are really framed around, first, I have to know who my counterpart is. I have to know something about them. I have to understand how do they process, how do they think.”

Getting to an agreement, Tillerson added, “means a willingness to talk about a lot of things.”

“Let’s just put a lot of things on the table. And what do you want to put on the table? And we’ll tell you what we want to put on the table. And the important thing is that we get started,” he said.

If there was “any condition at all to this,” Tillerson noted, “it’s that, look, it’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks, you decide to test another device. It’s going to be difficult to talk if in the middle of our talks, you decide to fire another one off.”

“So I think they clearly understand that if we’re going to talk, we have to have a period of quiet. We’ve got to have a period of quiet or it’s going to be very difficult to have productive discussions,” he said. “And so we continue to indicate to them we need a period of quiet. You need to tell us you want to talk. The door is open. But we’ll show up when you tell us you’re ready to talk.”

The administration has previously demanded that Pyongyang first accept that they would have to give up their nuclear program in any talks.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later issued the statement insisting that Trump’s views had not changed, without elaborating other than to say, “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.”