Tiller­son: U.S., North Korea are in direct con­tact

Dia­logue sought with Kim about mis­sile, nu­clear tests, sec­re­tary of state says

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Doug Stan­glin @dstan­glin USA TO­DAY

For the first time, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­knowl­edged Satur­day that it is in “direct con­tact” with the North Korean gov­ern­ment and has asked Py­ongyang whether its lead­ers would like to dis­cuss their mis­sile and nu­clear tests.

“We are prob­ing, so stay tuned,” Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son told re­porters in Bei­jing when asked how the U.S. might start a dia­logue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tions to Py­ongyang — we’re not in a dark sit­u­a­tion, a black­out. We have a cou­ple, three chan­nels open to Py­ongyang,” he said.

The sec­re­tary spoke to re­porters at the res­i­dence of the U.S. am­bas­sador to Bei­jing after meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and other Chi­nese lead­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press re­port in Au­gust, the U.S. and North Korea had been en­gaged in quiet dis­cus­sions for months with reg­u­lar diplo­matic con­tact be­tween the U.S. envoy for North Korea pol­icy and a se­nior North Korean diplo­mat at the coun­try’s U.N. mis­sion.

The public ac­knowl­edge­ment of con­tact with Py­ongyang fol­lows in­creas­ingly sharp ver­bal ex­changes and per­sonal in­sults be­tween the two coun­tries in re­cent weeks over North Korea’s lat­est nu­clear and mis­sile threats.

The ex­changes have in­cluded threats by North Korea to test a hy­dro­gen bomb in the Pa­cific and to shoot down U.S. mil­i­tary aircraft off its coast. The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion has threat­ened a swift re­sponse.

Pres­i­dent Trump re­ferred to Kim Jong Un as “lit­tle Rocket Man” and tweeted last week

that the North “won’t be around much longer” if it keeps is­su­ing threats.

Tiller­son would not say if the North Kore­ans had re­sponded to the U.S. over­ture for talks.

“We can talk to them,” he said. “We do talk to them.” Asked if the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion run through China, he said, “We have our own chan­nels.”

The sec­re­tary said it was im­por­tant to lower the tem­per­a­ture after weeks of threats and coun­terthreats with Py­ongyang.

“The whole sit­u­a­tion is a bit over­heated right now,” he said. “Ob­vi­ously it would help if North Korea would stop fir­ing its mis­siles; that would calm things down a lot.”

Asked if the ap­peal for calm should ap­ply to Pres­i­dent Trump, Tiller­son replied: “I think ev­ery­one would like for it to calm down.”

Bei­jing adamantly op­poses steps that could bring down Kim’s gov­ern­ment but ap­pears in­creas­ingly will­ing to tighten the screws. China has agreed to tough new U.N. penal­ties that would sub­stan­tially cut for­eign rev­enue for the iso­lated North.

On Thurs­day, Bei­jing or­dered North Korean-owned busi­nesses and ven­tures with Chi­nese part­ners to close by early Jan­uary, days after it said it would cut off gas and limit ship­ments of re­fined petroleum prod­ucts, ef­fec­tive Jan. 1. China made no men­tion of crude oil, which makes up the bulk of Chi­nese en­ergy sup­plies to North Korea and is not cov­ered by U.N. sanc­tions.

China has banned im­ports of North Korean coal, iron and lead ore, and seafood since early Septem­ber. Still, Wash­ing­ton hopes China will ex­ert even greater pres­sure.

China ar­gues that sanc­tions alone can­not solve the im­passe and has urged Wash­ing­ton to cool its rhetoric and open a dia­logue with North Korea. But the North is com­ing closer to hav­ing a nu­clear-tipped mis­sile that could strike Amer­ica and says it will only dis­cuss the weapons pro­grams if the U.S. aban­dons its “hos­tile pol­icy” to­ward the North.

ANDY WONG, POOL

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son looks at Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping dur­ing a meet­ing at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing on Satur­day.

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