US talking ‘directly’ with Pyongyang

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Saturday. (AP Photo)

BEIJING: The Trump administration acknowledged on Saturday for the first time that it is in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” he added, speaking at the residence of the US ambassador to Beijing after a meeting with China’s top leadership.

He would not say if the North Koreans had responded, beyond the exchange of threats that, in the past week, have included declarations that the country might conduct an atmospheric nuclear test and that it had the right to shoot down US warplanes in international waters.

“We can talk to them,” Tillerson said, “We do talk to them.”

When asked whether those channels ran through China, he shook his head. “Directly,” he said. “We have our own channels.”

His comments marked the first sign that the Trump administration has been trying its own version of what the Obama administration did with Iran: using a series of back-channel, largely secret communications that, after years of negotiation, resulted in a nuclear accord.

But Tillerson was quick to distinguish the very different circumstances of North Korea and Iran — Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, Teheran just a programme that could have led to them — and then added: “We are not going to put together a nuclear deal in North Korea that is as flimsy as the one in Iran.”

Speaking less than an hour after he left a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, Tillerson said the most important thing was to lower the temperature of the threats being exchanged in recent days between Kim and President Donald Trump.

“The whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” he said. “If North Korea would stop firing its missiles, that would calm things down a lot.”

When asked whether that caution applied as well to Trump, who tweeted last weekend that if the North were to keep issuing threats, “they won’t be around much longer,” he skirted any direct criticism of the president.

“I think everyone would like for it to calm down,” he said.

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