From 'fire and fury' to 'everyone calm down': The US now wants to talk with North Korea

  • 01/10/2017
Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un. Photo credit: Reuters

The US is sending out feelers to see if North Korea is interested in dialogue and has multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says.

The disclosure came on Saturday as Mr Tillerson expressed hope for reducing tensions with North Korea, which is fast advancing toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland.

US President Donald Trump has said he will never allow that to happen.

"We are probing, so stay tuned," Mr Tillerson told a small group of reporters during a trip to China. "We ask: 'Would you like to talk?'"

He then said the US had "a couple of, three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them."

Mr Tillerson's remarks followed a day of meetings in Beijing, which has been alarmed by recent exchanges of war-like threats and personal insults between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Mr Trump.

"I think the whole situation's a bit overheated right now," Mr Tillerson said. "I think everyone would like for it to calm down.

"Obviously it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That'd calm things down a lot."

South Korean officials have voiced concerns that North Korea could conduct more provocative acts near the anniversary of the founding of its communist party on October 10, or possibly when China holds its Communist Party Congress on October 18.

US officials including Mr Tillerson say Beijing, after long accounting for about 90 percent of North Korea's foreign trade, appears increasingly willing to cut ties to its neighbour's economy by adopting United Nations sanctions.

But to reach any diplomatic solution, Mr Tillerson would still need to overcome some basic US assumptions about North Korea and China.

The first would be getting North Korea's Kim to view nuclear weapons as a liability, not a strength. The US intelligence community does not believe he is likely to give up his weapons program willingly.

"[Mr Tillerson's] working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies, which say there's no amount of pressure that can be put on them to stop," Senator Bob Corker told a hearing at the chamber on Thursday.

The second big challenge for Mr Tillerson would be getting China to impose economic sanctions on North Korea so harsh that Mr Kim might question his future if they persisted.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they believe Beijing's priority is stability on the Korean peninsula, since a political collapse would almost certainly push destabilising waves of refugees into northeastern China.