The United States has opened a direct channel of communication with North Korea and is investigating whether the government of Kim Jong Un is interested in pursuing talks to give up its nuclear weapons, according to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in Beijing Saturday seeking China’s cooperation on a “maximum pressure” campaign against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Tillerson says Washington is probing to see if Pyongyang is interested in dialogue and revealed the two nations do talk.
Speaking with a small group of journalists Saturday in Beijing after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials, Tillerson said the United States is not in the dark and that Washington has its own lines of communication with Pyongyang.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson said. “We talk to them, we do talk to them, directly through our own channels.”
When asked what they talk about, Tillerson said, “We ask: Would you like to talk?”
The United States and North Korea typically speak to each other through other governments or former officials.
The remarks from Tillerson are the clearest to date on how the two countries interact, and come hot on the heels of rising tensions and a war of words between the two countries.
Over the past few weeks, following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test – it’s most powerful to date – President Donald Trump has referred to the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, as “Rocket Man.” Trump also said at the U.N. on September 19 the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea if it carried out an attack.
Kim responded by calling Trump a “dotard” and North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said the U.S. would “pay dearly for his speech,” threatening to carry out an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
Tillerson said Saturday, “Actually, what we need is to calm things down, I think they are well overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down.”
He also added, “Obviously it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles.”
One key focus of Tillerson’s whirlwind visit, which came just shortly after Chinese and American officials met earlier this week in Washington to host the Social and Culture Dialogue, was to hammer out details for Trump’s upcoming visit to Asia and China in November.
China has a week-long holiday starting Sunday and shortly after that the ruling Communist Party will host high-level political meetings and a once-in-five-years leadership reshuffle. Tillerson said he made the trip to discuss North Korea and Trump’s trip before China gets too busy with the party congress.
There are concerns, however, that North Korea might use China’s National Day anniversary and holiday or the upcoming meetings as an opportunity to carry out more tests. When asked whether an atmospheric nuclear test would trigger a military response from the United States, and whether that would cross a red line, Tillerson said President Trump would make that decision.
Tillerson added, though, that as far as he knows, the president has not set any red lines.
On Friday, President Trump announced a lengthy visit to Asia, his first to the region, which will include a stop in China. During meetings on Saturday, Tillerson said the details of that trip were starting to come together.
In brief remarks in front of reporters Saturday, Xi Jinping said he believed the visit would be “special, wonderful and successful” and called the visit the most important agenda for U.S.-China relations.
Earlier Saturday Tillerson met with China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The U.S. is conferring closely with Chinese officials on Beijing’s commitment to curbing imports of North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood.
If fully implemented, the ban on those items could substantially reduce North Korea’s revenues this year. North Korea had earned $1.5 billion from the export of the items to China in 2016, according to the State Department.
China is North Korea’s number one trade partner. Washington says bringing China on board is key to cutting off Pyongyang’s ability to earn hard currency.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program Director Douglas Paal said, however, China’s influence over North Korea is limited.
“The North is very reluctant to take instructions from China. It will exploit whatever it can get from China, but it doesn’t look for political guidance from China. So this is a problem we [the U.S.] and South Korea are going to have to handle directly with North Korea as we go forward,” Paal told VOA.
VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.
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