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Tillerson’s North Korea shift stirs little hope

By MASAYUKI YUDA, Nikkei staff writer

 

TOKYO — There is little hope that the constantly clashing United States and North Korea will end up in constructive talks even though U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday abruptly stated a willingness to unconditionally negotiate with Kim Jong Un’s regime. 

 

“Let’s just meet,” Tillerson said in a speech to a Washington think tank. The remark was a diplomatic U-turn and concessionary gesture to Pyongyang. The U.S. had been demanding a nuclear disarmament by North Korea as a precondition for any negotiations.

 

“Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards,” Tillerson continued.

 

Tillerson did set one groundrule. “It’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decided to test another device,” he said. “We need a period of quiet.”

 

The South Korean government welcomed Tillerson’s about-face. “South Korea and the U.S. are working together closely to resolve North Korea’s nuclear crisis,” said Baik Tae-hyun, chief spokesman at the Ministry of Unification. “If it is helpful to achieve this goal, we hope that talks will be made quickly. We believe that it is possible to have many types of dialogue.”

 

There is, however, skepticism regarding Tillerson. Reports say the secretary of state and Trump have had a falling out and that Tillerson is ready to resign to avoid being dismissed. Shortly after Tillerson’s speech, the White House announced that its policy toward North Korea remains untouched.

 

“The President’s views on North Korea have not changed,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House’s press secretary. “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China and South Korea, but [toward] the entire world.”

 

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, this morning echoed the words from the White House. He said Japan and the U.S. are in “100 percent” agreement that pressure should be maximized on North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

 

On Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump has been less provocative toward North Korea since his 13-day visit to Asia in early to mid-November.

 

This held true even after Pyongyang in late November said it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking anywhere in the U.S.

 

The launch could show that North Korea now has no need for another test, at least for the moment.

 

Lee Jong Wong, a professor at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, said Tillerson “may be trying to help the U.S. State Department achieve a diplomatic breakthrough before he gets replaced.”

 

The department is said to be seeking a peaceful resolution, either directly or through Russia. But there is fear that it could be stymied in these efforts should Tillerson be replaced by someone as belligerent as Trump.

 

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, sees Tillerson’s words as an attempt to avoid criticism from China and South Korea that the U.S. is trying to provoke North Korea.

 

“I think Tillerson intended to build some momentum for a peaceful resolution ahead of a South Korea-China summit on Thursday,” Yang said. There has been speculation that South Korea and China might cooperate to stop the U.S. from inflaming an already hot-tempered North Korea and avoid war in the region at any cost. “But still,” Yang said, “the U.S. needs to follow up with actions to bring North Korea to the table.”

 

Either way, Tillerson’s words are no harbinger of a peaceful Christmas between the U.S. and North Korea.

 

Nikkei staff writer Kim Jaewon in Seoul contributed to this story. 

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