BEIJING — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States is in direct contact with North Korea and is looking into whether Kim Jong Un is open to talks.
The comment, made during a brief trip to China, was the first time the Trump administration acknowledged direct communication with Pyongyang.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” he said.
“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; we can talk to them; we do talk to them,” he said.
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said later in the day that despite the U.S. efforts, “North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.”
Tillerson’s remarks came after a day of meetings with top Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping — meetings that saw both sides strike a careful, conciliatory tone.
The secretary of state’s day-long visit comes amid an escalating standoff over how to thwart Kim’s nuclear weapons program.
In recent weeks, the conflict has devolved to an exchange of insults and threats between the U.S. president and the North Korean dictator, prompting Chinese calls for restraint.
Tillerson seems to have gotten that message. In brief statements ahead of his meetings with Chinese leaders, the secretary of state did not so much as mention North Korea and nor, for that matter, did the Chinese.
Instead, both sides tried to keep the focus on President Trump’s upcoming Asia visit, which Xi promised would be a “special, wonderful, and successful” event.
Yet all the talk of careful planning and close cooperation could not mask the less-than-ideal circumstances.
Tillerson landed in Beijing on Saturday morning after a long delay due to a problem with his plane, arriving on the eve of the week-long Mid-Autumn Festival.
In addition to the holiday, his hosts had much on their minds. For months now, Beijing has been consumed with preparations for twice-a-decade political meetings to be held in October. The focus on the 19th National Congress, as the meetings are called, means the Chinese leadership’s interest in off-script moves from either Trump or Kim is lower than ever — and it already started pretty low.
Though arriving late, Tillerson did the Chinese the favor of staying on message, saying nothing publicly that could embarrass them or signal new, unexpected moves.
This is keeping with his style so far. On his first visit, in March, he surprised many China watchers by using some of Beijing’s preferred talking points — “mutual respect and win-win cooperation” — in public comments.
The question, now, is how Trump or Kim will chime in.
Earlier in September, North Korea tested a nuclear bomb just hours before Xi delivered a keynote speech, stealing his spotlight. Then as China’s state news media struggled to keep the focus on Xi, Trump weighed in, tweeting that North Korea has become a “great threat and embarrassment to China.”
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, later called Trump’s tweet “unacceptable.”
Tillerson, perhaps trying to avoid that kind of scolding, ended his trip with a call for calm.
“I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down,” he said. “They’re a little overheated right now. And I think we need to calm them down first.”
Asked whether Trump’s tweets played a role, he switched the focus back to Kim.
“I think the whole situation is a bit overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down,” he said.
“Obviously, it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot.”