U.S.’s Tillerson, in new overture to North Korea, says ready to talk without pre-conditions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered on Tuesday to begin talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, appearing to back away from U.S. demands that Pyongyang must first accept that any negotiations would have to be based on North Korean nuclear disarmament.

“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 U.S. 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.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the U.S.-Korea relationship during a forum at the Atlantic Council in Washington, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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 U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, something most experts say it has still not achieved.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the U.S.-Korea relationship during a forum at the Atlantic Council in Washington, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“We’re ready to have the first meeting without pre-conditions,” Tillerson said at the Atlantic Council.

“It’s…

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