NEW YORK â The Trump administration is willing to bargain directly with North Korea over ending its nuclear weapons program, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday, an apparent shift in policy aimed at strengthening international resolve against what the Trump administration considers a growing menace.
âObviously, that will be the way we would like to solve this,â Tillerson said in an interview with NPR scheduled to air Friday, when the United States is convening an unusual high-level meeting at the United Nations devoted to the threat posed by North Koreaâs nuclear weapons arsenal.
âBut North Korea has to decide theyâre ready to talk to us about the right agenda, and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. Thatâs been the agenda for the last 20 years.â
It is not fully clear what that means, but in the NPR interview and another Thursday with Fox News, Tillerson began to sketch a diplomatic approach for the new administration that focuses on international pressure and leveraging Chinaâs economic power over its impoverished ally.
The U.N. Security Council session Friday comes at a particularly tense time in relations between North Korea and the United States, with the Trump administration sending warships to the region in a show of force against Kim Jong Unâs regime.
This week, North Korea conducted large-scale artillery drills, showing off conventional weaponry that can easily reach South Koreaâs capital, Seoul, the center of a metropolitan region that is home to about 25 million people.
The Trump administration has said that military action to head off further North Korean nuclear weapons development is not out of the question, but it remains unlikely. A goal of future U.N. diplomacy could be to draw lines for when escalation by North Korea would justify retaliatory action by the United States or others, diplomats and arms control experts said.
At issue is the simultaneous effort in North Korea to perfect a nuclear warhead that could be delivered far from its shores and to develop missiles with a range long enough to be a threat to the United States. Undeterred, North Korea could have that capability within a few years â likely during President Trumpâs first term in office. North Korea already possesses missiles able to threaten U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, as well as other Asian neighbors.
âWe entered office confronted with a very serious threat from North Korea. We knew that coming in, and the president gave that immediate attention,â Tillerson said in the Fox interview. âTensions are running a bit high right now. We expected they would. In our approach to addressing this issue, we know thereâs going to be risk involved.â
A North Korean propaganda outlet released a video clip on Thursday showing a simulated attack on the White House and declaring that âthe enemy to be destroyed is in our sights.â
In setting terms for direct talks â that they be directed at getting rid of North Koreaâs nuclear weapons entirely, rather than freezing the program in exchange for economic benefits â Tillerson said the Trump administration is taking a tougher line than in past efforts by both Democratic and Republican administrations.
He also suggested that Chinaâs views are helping shape the U.S. policy. Earlier in the new Trump administration, Tillerson and other officials had sounded skeptical that talks could be productive, although Tillerson did not rule them out.
The last round of direct talks, initiated in 2003 and involving the United States, China and other nations, produced no rollback of the North Korean program. Last month, during his first trip to South Korea, Japan and China, Tillerson declared that the âera of strategic patienceâ that included those talks was over, and that âall optionsâ were now on the table.
âI first spoke to the Chinese on my first trip to Beijing to make clear to them that we were unwilling to negotiate our way to the negotiating table,â Tillerson said in the Fox News interview. âAnd I think thatâs the mistakes of the past,â he added. âThe regime in North Korea has to position itself in a different place in order for us to be willing to engage in talks.â
Trump has been urging China to apply pressure on North Korea and has warned that his administration will act if Beijing does not.
China supports talks and has long argued that although it also wants to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, it cannot persuade North Korea to give them up without direct assurances from the United States.
Tillerson offered some Thursday, telling Fox that the United States is not seeking âregime changeâ to topple the family dynasty of Kim Jong Un, or an âexcuseâ for the reunification of U.S. ally South Korea with its communist neighbor on the Korean Peninsula.
âThe regime in the past has indicated the reason they pursue nuclear weapons is they feel that is the only way to ensure their survival as a regime. We want to change that view of theirs,â Tillerson said. âAnd we have said to them that your pathway to survival and security is to eliminate your nuclear weapons, and we and other countries will be prepared to help you on a pathway of economic development.â
Fridayâs session at the U.N. Security Council is intended to send a warning signal to North Korea that the United States is not alone in assessing that the nuclear weapons threat from Pyongyang has reached a crisis point, diplomats said.
Tillerson is expected to appeal for more vigorous enforcement of international economic sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs and raise the prospect of additional economic and diplomatic punishment in response to any further provocations.
âWeâre going to be discussing what next steps may be necessary to increase the pressure on the regime at Pyongyang to have them reconsider their current posture,â Tillerson said in the Fox interview.
The Trump administration is also threatening other action, with or without wide international backing, but the thrust of Fridayâs session is to show that even China, the source of 90 percent of North Koreaâs trade, has had enough, U.S. and other diplomats said.
Although the council is not voting on new sanctions or other measures Friday, the Trump administration hopes for a show of force with the entire council, including China, Russia, and the United States, coming together to air concerns about North Koreaâs behavior.
Showing a willingness to hold talks with North Korea could help the United States get that unified front, but Washington risks alienating other Security Council members if it tries to set terms other countries would see as unrealistic.
âUntil and unless the United States shows a willingness to engage in at least âtalks about talksâ with North Korea, it is very unlikely they will agree to support new sanctions against North Korea,â said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. âIf Trump and his team insist on a North Korean commitment to âdenuclearizationâ before talks can begin, other members of [the] council will see the U.S. call for âengagementâ as unserious and will not support new .â.â. sanctions.â
The meeting, which Tillerson will chair, caps the month-long U.S. leadership of the Security Council. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley frequently used the rotating council presidency in April to highlight the North Korean threat.
Trump convened members of Congress on Wednesday to brief them on what the White House called the âvery grave threatâ posed by Pyongyang.
One of the U.S. Navyâs largest submarines, the USS Michigan, which carries Tomahawk cruise missiles, docked in the South Korean port of Busan this week. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, along with the destroyers and cruiser that make up its strike group, will arrive in the Korean Peninsula area this weekend.
U.S. officials said the Pentagon is developing military options after having directed the Carl Vinson strike group toward the Korean Peninsula.