Speaking from the 2017 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson surprisingly announced that the Trump administration is ready to hold talks with North Korea without any preconditions.
“We’ve said from the diplomatic side, we’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” Tillerson said.
It should be noted that he did go on to specify one precondition: a “period of quiet” without any new North Korean nuclear bomb detonations or missile tests. He told North Korea it would be “tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device.”
“Let’s just meet, and we can talk about the weather if you want,” he suggested. “Talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table, if that’s what you are 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.”
This appears to be a significant departure from the previous Trump administration position that North Korea must give up its nuclear missile program as a precondition for talks. The U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, repeated that position as recently as last week. Tillerson himself said in August, “We don’t think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they’re going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive.”
As for President Donald Trump, he famously told Tillerson at the beginning of October that he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
“It’s not realistic to say we are 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,” Tillerson granted in his remarks at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday.
The Secretary of State nevertheless maintained there are “multiple military options that have been developed to deal with a failure on my part,” by which he meant his failure to convince North Korea to give up on nuclear weapons. He stressed the United States “simply cannot accept” North Korea developing nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile technology and selling it to other rogue states around the world.
“As I’ve told people many times, I will continue our diplomatic efforts until the first bomb drops. I’m confident that we’re gonna be successful. But I’m also confident that Secretary Mattis will be successful if it ends up being his turn,” Tillerson said, referring to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
“Our military preparedness is strong,” Tillerson declared. “Because of the situation, the president has ordered our military planners to have a full range of contingencies available, and they are ready.”
The UK Guardian notes that Tillerson’s comments could be interpreted as a final effort to get the North Koreans talking before doom comes to Pyongyang. He told the forum that the United States and China have been discussing how to handle the collapse of the Kim regime and implied the Chinese are comfortable with U.S. assurances that its military priority would be securing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
As the Guardian observes, China has been doing more than merely discuss contingency plans for North Korea’s collapse: “Earlier this week it emerged that China is building a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile (1,416km) border with North Korea, in preparation for a potential exodus that could be unleashed by conflict or the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime.”