Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today during his Africa trip that he spoke with President Trump on his decision to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un after it was announced by South Korean officials and the administration.
Speaking in Djibouti alongside Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, Tillerson was asked about his months-long public position that the time was not right for sitting down with North Korea.
Trump tweeted in October, “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.”
“What changed in the last 24 hours that gave the Trump administration confidence that now is the right time?” a reporter asked Tillerson today. “Can you explain the logic behind starting this process?”
“With respect to talks with North Korea versus negotiations — and I think this seems to be something that people continue to struggle with the difference,” Tillerson replied. “My comments have been that we’re — the conditions are not right for negotiations, but we’ve been saying for some time we are open to talks. President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim Jong-un when conditions were right and the time was right. And I think in the president’s judgment, that time has arrived now.”
“In terms of the decision to engage between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, that’s a decision the president took himself,” he added. “I spoke to him very early this morning about that decision and we had a good conversation. This is something that he’s had on his mind for quite some time, so it was not a surprise in any way, because I think this has long been something. He’s expressed it openly before about his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un.”
Tillerson said that now it’s “a question of agreeing on a timing of that first meeting between the two of them and a location, and that will take some weeks before we get all that worked out.”
Later, at the White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to add a condition: “The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea,” she said.
Tillerson said the U.S. and North Korea “had been having contacts back and forth” before the meeting was announced “through channels that we have had open for some time.”
“And I think this was the most forward-leaning report that we’ve have had in terms of Kim Jong-un’s, not just willingness, but his strong desire for talks,” he added. “So I think it was really — what changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way that, in all honesty, came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well that he was so forward-leaning in his conversations with the delegation from South Korea.”
The South Koreans said the Trump-Kim meeting is expected by May. Sanders didn’t commit to that timeframe today.