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US ready for talks with North Korea 'without preconditions', Tillerson says

Rex Tillerson at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC on Tuesday Photo: Reuters

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the US is ready to begin exploratory talks with North Korea "without preconditions", but only after a "period of quiet" without new nuclear or missile tests.

Tillerson's remarks appeared to mark a shift in state department policy, which had previously required Pyongyang to show it was "serious" about giving up its nuclear arsenal before contacts could start. And the language was a long way from repeated comments by President Donald Trump that such contacts are a "waste of time".

Tillerson also revealed that the US had been talking to China about what each country would do in the event of a conflict or regime collapse in North Korea, saying that the Trump administration had given Beijing assurances that US troops would pull back to the 38th parallel, which divides North Korea and South Korea, and that the only US concern would be to secure the regime's nuclear weapons.

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.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council thinktank in Washington, Tillerson made it explicit that the message to Pyongyang had changed and that the North Korean regime did not have to commit to full disarmament before direct diplomacy could take off.

"We are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. We are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions. Let's just meet," Tillerson said. "And then we can begin to lay out a roadmap ... 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.

"Let's just meet and let's talk about the weather," the secretary of state said. "If you want ... and talk about whether it's going to be a square table or a round table if that's what you're excited about."

However, he then laid down one condition and said there should be a "period of quiet" in which such preliminary talks could take place. He portrayed it as a practical consideration.

"It's going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device," he said. "We need a period of quiet."

Tillerson's comments came as Kim Jong-un vowed to make North Korea the "world's strongest nuclear power".

Kim told workers behind the recent test of a new missile that his country "will victoriously advance and leap as the strongest nuclear power and military power in the world", in a ceremony on Tuesday, according to the state news agency, KCNA.

Daryl Kimball, the head of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that the US would have to carry out confidence-building measures for meaningful talks to start.

"Secretary Tillerson's proposal for direct talks with North Korea without preconditions is overdue and welcome," Kimball said. "However, in order to get to such talks going, the US side as well as North Korea must demonstrate more restraint. For North Korea, that means a halt to all nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and for the United States, refraining from military maneuvers and overflights that appear to be practice runs for an attack on the North.

"If such restraint is not forthcoming, we can expect a further escalation of tensions and a growing risk of a catastrophic war," he added.

China and Russia both welcomed Tillerson's comments. The Chinese foreign ministry hoped there would now be "meaningful steps towards dialogue and contact" between the US and the North.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said, "Such constructive statements impress us far more than the confrontational rhetoric that we have heard up to now."

South Korea, which fears disruption to the Winter Olympics it hosts in February, also welcomed Tillerson's proposal.

North Korea has yet to respond, and the White House, where Tillerson has reportedly fallen out of favor, distanced itself from Tillerson's overture, which came two weeks after North Korea tested a missile that could potentially carry a nuclear warhead to the US Eastern Seaboard.

"The president's views on North Korea have not changed," the White House said in a vague statement, according to Reuters. "North Korea is acting in an unsafe way ... North Korea's actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea."

There's ample precedent for a public disconnect between Tillerson and Trump on vital issues of foreign policy. In October, Trump appeared to undercut Tillerson by saying the top diplomat was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korea. Trump's tweet followed Tillerson's talk about Washington maintaining back-channel communications with Pyongyang.

And doubts about Trump's broader confidence in Tillerson have persisted since White House officials revealed a plan last month to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Hardliners on North Korea say that if the US were to accept talks with Pyongyang without preconditions, it would give the country a seat at the table with Washington as equals, something they consider a defeat.

Without White House support, Tillerson's call for unconditional talks would fall flat, said Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "A skeptic might say that at least he wants to show the US is trying diplomacy, so as to make any future military action more justifiable," Fitzpatrick said.

Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said the Trump administration "has played hardball in trying to convert pressure into diplomatic opportunity." But so far, North Korea hasn't been willing to engage. He said it's unclear if the North will want to negotiate as it nears deployment of a nuclear missile that could strike America.

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