After months of heated rhetoric, President Donald Trump’s administration seemed to take pains to emphasize that its priority right now is to cool things down and see whether North Korea would be open to sitting down for talks. “We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in what marked the first time that a senior U.S. official acknowledged there was direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang.
“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang—we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” Tillerson told reporters during a trip to China. “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.” Tillerson didn’t elaborate who was actually involved in the contacts or whether that communication took place with any frequency. For now, the United States seems open to seeing what North Korea wants or is willing to talk about: “We haven’t gotten that far yet,” he said.
The admission by Tillerson is at least somewhat surprising considering Trump said last month on Twitter that “talking is not the answer” when it comes to North Korea. But with his words the secretary of State was effectively confirming an August story from the Associated Press that claimed the Trump administration was “quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months.”
The New York Times points out that Tillerson’s words marked the first time the White House has admitted to “trying its own version of what the Obama administration did with Iran: using a series of backchannel, largely secret communications that, after years of negotiation, resulted in a nuclear accord.” Tillerson, however, was quick to push back against any comparisons. “We are not going to put together a nuclear deal in North Korea that is as flimsy as the one in Iran,” he said.
For now, Tillerson said, the most important thing is to tone down any threats between North Korea and the United States. “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.” North Korea doesn’t seem in any mood to tone down its rhetoric yet. On Saturday, the country’s state media released a statement calling Trump an “old psychopath” who is working toward a “suicidal act of inviting a nuclear disaster that will reduce America to a sea of flames.”