Just two weeks after North Korea once again put the world on nuclear war alert by launching its most advanced Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) to date - which experts believe could reach New York or D.C. with a nuclear payload - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in surprising statements Tuesday indicated that the US would be willing to hold talks with North Korea without any preconditions.
And it appears the North may have already responded to the overture: according to comments from UN political affairs chief Feltman crossing the Reuters wire on Tuesday evening:
- N.Korea agrees "it is important to avoid war. "
- We have left the door open for negotiations.
- N.Korea did not offer any type of commitment to talks.
USG Jeffrey Feltman calls his visit to #NorthKorea the first in-depth political exchange of views between the UN and Pyongyang in almost 8 years. He says the officials he met, including the FM & vice-FM, agreed this ''was only a beginning'' pic.twitter.com/7rtWKo6YrJ— Melissa Kent (@KentUNCBC) December 13, 2017
In remarks given to the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, Tillerson said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk and we’re ready to have the first meeting without preconditions." He stated his belief that it was "unrealistic" for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program before even coming to the table as they already have "too much invested in it." And it appears the statements are representative of a potential new course for the White House, as Tillerson added that President Trump "is very realistic about that as well."
"We are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. We are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions," Tillerson said. “Let’s just meet. 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 if that’s what you’re excited about.” He added further, “And then we can begin to lay out a road map."
Earlier in the day the secretary of state said the administration was pleased with the "progress" so far in ramping up the "extreme" sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the isolated Communist nation, which has involved heightened UN sanctions and greater pressure from China as well. As evidence of the multi-national nature and effectiveness of the sanctions, Tiller said that over 22 countries have recalled their diplomats from Pyongyang, among them even nations like Mexico and Peru.
He had also earlier referenced pressure through a regimen of US-South Korea military exercises in the region which the North sees as a threat, saying that, an “important part of our diplomatic success is that we have a strong military presence standing behind us so that if North Korea makes bad choices, we’re prepared.”
The timing of Tillerson's potential overture is interesting: not only does it come two weeks after a missile launch that experts confirmed could reach much of the North American continent, but at a time when South Korea is feverishly preparing to host the upcoming Winter Olympic games in February 2018.
Especially worrisome is that Pyongyang's recent November 28th ICBM launch was reported to have flown for 50 minutes on a very high trajectory reaching 4,500 km above the earth (more than ten times higher than the orbit of Nasa’s International Space Station) before coming down nearly 1,000 km from the launch site off the west coast of Japan. The test prompted the US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, to reiterate that Kim Jong Un's provocative actions constitute “the biggest threat to humankind right now.”
Predictably, the US response has been to hold increased military exercises in the region with allies like Japan - as were conducted throughout Tuesday - though other world powers, Russia foremost among them, urged caution and restraint regarding heightened exercises which North Korea sees as saber rattling. However, even South Korea is now requesting that the US dial down its drills, as it worries its northern neighbor could maneuver to stir up trouble preceding or even during the Winter Olympics, set to be hosted in Pyeongchang County from February 9th through Feb 25th, followed by the Paralympic Winter Games.
The site of the games is a mere 50 miles south of the heavily militarized border, making potential for a major incident as the global spotlight shines on the games an alarming possibility. According to reports, thousands of South Korean military and police personnel are conducting intense security drills preparing for scenarios ranging from bombings, to chemical weapons attacks, to hostage-taking situations. Some 5,000 military personnel are expected to be deployed to the games once they begin as Prime Minuster Lee Nak-yon vowed that the massive security show of force would ensure there are no “security loopholes.”
Meanwhile the South Korean government is reportedly urging the US to hold off on further regional military exercises and shows of force until after the games.
Furthermore, as we reported last night, the security drills come amid new reports that South Korea is asking the U.S. to put off staging two major military exercises until after the end of the Winter Paralympics in March. Those exercises infuriate the Pyongyang regime, which brands them a “rehearsal for war.” No word yet whether the Pentagon will agree.
This comes amidst talk of what's being called a "freeze-for-freeze" deal in which the North would agree to halt all missile launches and nuclear tests and in return the US would suspend all military exercises in the area. This is something both Moscow and Beijing are currently pushing hard for, and Tillerson's remarks before the Atlantic Council today could signal that the White House is seriously considering the plan.
At the very least, Tillerson's statements open up a door at an opportune time in which all major powers invested in the region desire to see tensions relaxed, especially the South. His seemingly easygoing remarks, such as “Let’s just meet, we can talk about the weather if you want... so it is really about how do you begin the process of engagement" - appear to have provided just such an opening.