WASHINGTON • No negotiations can be held with North Korea until it improves its behaviour, a White House official said, raising questions about US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's offer to begin talks with Pyongyang at any time and without pre-conditions.
"Given North Korea's most recent missile test, clearly right now is not the time," a White House official told Reuters.
Mr Tillerson said on Tuesday that the United States was "ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk", appearing to back away from a key US demand that Pyongyang must first accept that any negotiations would have to be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.
The White House has declined to say whether President Donald Trump, who has taken a tougher rhetorical line against North Korea than Mr Tillerson, gave approval for the overture.
A day after Mr Tillerson's comments at a meeting of Washington's Atlantic Council think-tank, the White House official, who declined to be named, laid out a more restrictive formula for any diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
"The administration is united in insisting that any negotiations with North Korea must wait until the regime fundamentally improves its behaviour," the official said.
"As the secretary of state himself has said, this must include, but is not limited to, no further nuclear or missile tests."
In his speech, however, Mr Tillerson did not explicitly set a testing freeze as a requirement before talks can begin. He said it would be "tough to talk" if Pyongyang decided to test another device in the middle of discussions and that "a period of quiet" would be needed for productive discussions.
A few hours after his comments, the White House distanced itself from Mr Tillerson's overture. In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr Trump's position on North Korea had not changed - namely, that talks were pointless if the North's leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, continued to menace his neighbours.
State Department spokesman Heather Nauert also appeared to walk back on part of Mr Tillerson's proposal, saying there would have to be a suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests for an undefined length of time before any talks could take place.
"And we certainly haven't seen that right now," she told reporters, insisting Mr Tillerson had not unveiled a new policy and was "on the same page" as the White House. Mr Tillerson's relationship with Mr Trump has been strained by differences over North Korea and other issues, and he has seen his influence diminished within the administration.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, following Mr Tillerson's speech, that China welcomed efforts to ease tension and promote dialogue to resolve the North Korea stand-off.
Russia also welcomed Mr Tillerson's statement, the Interfax news agency cited Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, warning of the danger of "sleepwalking" into war, yesterday said Security Council resolutions on North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes must be fully implemented by Pyongyang and other countries. He made the comments to reporters after meeting Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.