Tillerson tries to force North Korea to negotiating table

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today that the Trump Administration is trying to force North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table. In remarks made from the State Department treaty room, Tillerson seemed to temper recently heated rhetoric about military confrontation with North Korea.

“We are reviewing all the status of North Korea both in terms of state sponsorship of terrorism, as well as all the other ways we can bring pressure to bear on the regime in Pyongyang to re-engage, but re-engage with us on a different footing than the past talks have been held,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson also appeared to sketch out the terms of such diplomatic engagement, suggesting that the U.S. would not offer aid for concessions from North Korea as has been done in the past. In a pointed comparison, Tillerson called the Obama-era nuclear deal a model of just “buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions” and dismissed it as a failed way to approach to both Iran and North Korea.

During his travel through the region over the past few days, Vice President Pence has both threatened overwhelming U.S. military force if tested but also suggested that the U.S. would prefer a negotiated solution, albeit not via direct talks. The Trump administration has repeatedly said that it is hoping that China will do for Mr. Trump what it has failed to do for past presidents – force concessions from Pyongyang.

Chinese officials told CBS News Wednesday that during the Mar-a-Lago summit, Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping discussed the North Korean threat. Beijing admitted that sometimes Pyongyang officials listen to them, and sometimes they do not. However, Xi’s message to Mr. Trump was that diplomacy is the only “workable” solution, and he laid out a proposal. In the view of Chinese officials, the “military option is not an option” because it would throw Southeast Asia into complete chaos, and “we do not want war or chaos on the doorstep of China.” Xi’s message was described to CBS News by Chinese officials who said that the two leaders spent one-on-one time discussing issues without the presence of note-takers.

Wednesday at the State Department, the secretary spent the majority of his remarks discussing the threat posed by Iran. He characterized the Obama-era nuclear deal as simply delaying but not destroying Iran’s ability to eventually produce a nuclear weapon. He also said the narrowly-defined deal to control their nuclear program did not stop Iran from other meddling in the region through terrorism.

“We buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later,” he said. “We just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all their disruptive activities.”

The timing of Tillerson’s remarks was deliberate. Just Tuesday, Tillerson had certified to Congress that Iran is abiding by the terms of the Obama era deal to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. In short, he said it was working, so U.S. sanctions should remain suspended. However, he also added that the Trump administration will continue to hold 90-day reviews of whether sanctions should be put back on Tehran.

“Unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it,” he said.

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