Trump administration officials said Mr. Tillerson was increasingly concerned that the recent North Korean advances, especially its missiles’ range, were driving the United States to a binary choice: Accept a North with nuclear weapons that can target American cities, or head toward a military confrontation.
At a rare appearance in front of the State Department press corps on Tuesday, Mr. Tillerson went out of his way to offer assurances to the government of Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Others in the Trump administration have declined to publicly say as much, and on Wednesday night, The Wall Street Journal reported that Vice President Mike Pence told journalists traveling with him on Air Force Two that the United States would not hold direct talks with North Korea. It was not clear how his comments squared with those of Mr. Tillerson a day earlier.
“We have reaffirmed our position toward North Korea,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters. “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek the collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel,” which divides North and South, he said.
“And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans: We are not your enemy, we are not your threat,” he said. “But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.”
That was a somewhat different tone than the one Mr. Tillerson took when he visited Seoul in March and appeared to make North Korea’s surrender of nuclear weapons a prerequisite for talks. At that time, he said that negotiations could “only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” and that “only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”
The idea that North Korea would give up its weapons at the opening of talks was dismissed immediately by allies as unworkable, and Mr. Tillerson may have simply phrased it badly. But the question now, after a series of successful missile tests, is whether Mr. Kim will decide it is time to negotiate a “freeze” on further detonations and launches — or whether he should just keep going on his current path.
Even Mr. Tillerson has, in the past, cast doubt on the wisdom of entering a “freeze,” since it would essentially enshrine North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state — to which a series of American presidents have said they would never agree.