“Let’s just meet,” Tillerson said in a speech to Washington think tank the Atlantic Council, presenting a new diplomatic overture amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances and harsh rhetoric between the two sides.
Tensions have flared anew since North Korea said it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile last month in what it called a “breakthrough” that put the US mainland within range.
While reiterating Washington’s long-standing position that it cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, Tillerson said the United States was “ready to talk any time they’re ready to talk,” but that Pyongyang must come to the table willing to make choices to change its course.
“We can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table,” he said.
“Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work toward,” Tillerson said, suggesting that any initial contacts would be about setting the ground rules for formal negotiations.
It was not immediately clear whether Tillerson, whose influence has appeared to wane within the administration, had President Donald Trump’s full support to seek such a diplomatic opening.
Tillerson has previously expressed a desire to use diplomatic channels with Pyongyang, but Trump tweeted in October that such engagement would be a waste of time.
North Korea, for its part, has made clear that it has little interest in negotiations with the United States until it has developed the ability to hit the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, something most experts say it has still not achieved.
“We’re ready to have the first meeting without pre-conditions,” Tillerson said at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program,” he said. “They have too much invested in it. The president is very realistic about that as well.”
Tillerson also said that the United States was working to tighten enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea, especially further measures that China can apply, and that Washington had a full menu of military options if such a response is needed. He said the United States has had conversations with China about how North Korean nuclear weapons might be secured in a crisis and has assured Beijing that if US forces had to cross into North Korea they would return to South Korea.
But he made clear that the United States wants to resolve the North Korea standoff through peaceful diplomacy.