U.S. is ‘listening’ for signs North is ready to talk: Tillerson

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U.S. is ‘listening’ for signs North is ready to talk: Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was “listening” for cues from North Korea that it was ready to engage in direct talks with the United States, adding no incentives will be used to bring the regime back to the discussion table.

“My job as chief diplomat is to ensure that the North Koreans know we keep our channels open,” Tillerson said in a recent interview with Margaret Brennan on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” according to excerpts of a preview released by the American broadcaster.

“I’m listening. I’m not sending a lot of messages back because there’s nothing to say to them at this point. So I’m listening for you to tell me you’re ready to talk.”

It was the latest green light from the Donald Trump White House that Washington is willing to talk with the North without any preconditions, a shift in approach that resulted from the recent thaw in tension between the two Koreas and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation to President Moon Jae-in for a summit in Pyongyang.

The new “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time” approach, as described in the words of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, is a deviation from the past, when the Trump administration would only engage directly with the regime if it made real concessions for denuclearization, building maximum pressure until that point was reached.

In the CBS interview, Tillerson stressed that the maximum pressure campaign was still on.

“We are not using a carrot to convince them to talk,” he said. “We are using large sticks, and that is what they need to understand.”

The pressure campaign, he continued, was “having its bite” on the North.

In an opinion piece run by the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun last Saturday, North Korea accused Pence of trying to “sabotage” the PyeongChang Winter Games by meeting with North Korean defectors, or “human trash,” and visiting the wreckage of the Cheonan warship ahead of his participation in the Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 9, saying the regime was not thirsty for talks with the United States.

“The United States must keep in mind that whether it chooses to add more pressure and sanctions against us, carry out a military option or plot a scheme,” the article read in Korean, “we’re prepared to react to every move with various solutions.”

The North continued that “Trump and his gang members” should reflect on their wrongdoings toward the regime unless they want to embarrass themselves further in front of the world, adding that the Trump White House was getting way too ahead of the prospects of direct talks with Pyongyang, while the regime is not even thinking about them.

Kim Yong-hyon, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, assessed that Pyongyang and Washington have begun a war of nerves ahead of bilateral discussions, implying that both countries are trying to push as hard as they can to enter the game with the best possible hand.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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