U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Sunday that negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program would be a waste of time, after it emerged that Washington has channels of contact with Pyongyang.
Only hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that U.S. officials are in exploratory contact with their North Korean counterparts, Trump appeared to undercut his top diplomat by declaring on Twitter that any talks would be futile. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump said, using the insulting nickname he has tried to pin on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Speaking on Saturday after talks with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing, Tillerson said that U.S. officials have open channels of communication with North Korea despite an escalating war of words between their respective leaders. Asked how he could know whether the North would even contemplate coming to the table to negotiate away its growing nuclear arsenal, Tillerson told reporters in Beijing: “We are probing, so stay tuned.”
“We have lines of communication with Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout, we have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” he said. “We can talk to them, we do talk to them.” But later, after the secretary began his flight home, the State Department issued a statement to clarify that North Korea has “shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.”
And on Sunday, the department’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert and Tillerson’s chief public affairs adviser R.C. Hammond launched their own series of tweets in what appeared to be an attempt to harmonize the mixed messages. “DPRK will not obtain a nuclear capability. Whether through diplomacy or force is up to the regime,” Nauert wrote, before tagging the president in her second message: “Diplomatic channels are open for #KimJongUn for now. They won’t be open forever @StateDept @potus.”
Hammond, meanwhile, said Trump’s tweets should be interpreted not as a rebuke to Tillerson but as a message to Kim that time is running out for a diplomatic solution. “Channels have been open for months. They’ve been unused and cooling for months,” he said in one tweet. “The president just sent a clear message to NK: show up at the diplomatic table before the invitation gets cold,” he added in another.
In a recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the U.S. or any of its allies, deriding Kim as “Rocket Man” and warning he is on a “suicide mission.” Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.”
Trump’s administration has also been at the forefront of a drive to impose a series of sanctions against North Korea in response to its sixth nuclear test—the largest yet—and the firing of two missiles over Japan.
North Korea’s main economic partner China has signed up to the sanctions, including restrictions on imports, as has Russia. But, uneasy over Trump’s bellicose tone, both countries have appealed to the United States to have talks with North Korea, and Tillerson’s revelation was welcomed on Sunday by Germany.
“This is exactly the right course and a courageous step,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said. “North Korea would be well advised to take this offer of talks seriously.”
Gabriel also urged the U.S. to have dialogue with Iran over a nuclear accord, which Trump appears on the verge of scrapping, adding that such a move “would undermine the credibility of the offer to North Korea.”
Trump has previously kept the door open to possible talks with North Korea.
In a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting last month, Trump responded “Why not?” when asked whether there could be talks. But his administration has also been urging allies to ratchet up the pressure on Kim’s regime by isolating it diplomatically.
It emerged on Sunday that Italy has ordered North Korea’s incoming new ambassador to leave the country in a protest over Kim’s missile launches and nuclear tests. “We have taken the firm decision to interrupt the accreditation procedure. The ambassador will have to leave the country,” Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica. “We want to make Pyongyang understand that isolation is inevitable if it does not change course.”