UNITED NATIONS • Three days after offering to talk to North Korea "without pre-condition", United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed course, insisting - as President Donald Trump has all along - that the North must stop its nuclear threats and "earn its way" to negotiations.
"A sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behaviour must occur before talks can begin," Mr Tillerson said at a United Nations Security Council meeting.
His remarks on Friday were a sharp contrast from his surprisingly conciliatory comments, made on Tuesday, in which he said he was open to talking to the North.
The White House swiftly distanced itself, saying that talks would be pointless so long as the North continued to threaten its neighbours and the US.
On Friday, Mr Tillerson reiterated Mr Trump's position. "North Korea must earn its way back to the table," he said. "The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearisation is achieved."
The back and forth reflected the awkward gulf between Mr Tillerson and Mr Trump, who has threatened to "totally destroy" the country.
Mr Tillerson's latest message also appeared to place the US and North Korea at a dangerous stand-off once more, with Washington insisting on a halt to the North's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes and North Korea advancing them.
STILL PUTTING PRESSURE
North Korea must earn its way back to the table. The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearisation is achieved.
UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the North Korean nuclear crisis the world's "most tense and dangerous security issue", and without identifying the US by name, warned of the risk of bellicose language. He said it was imperative to open lines of communication.
One of his top aides, Mr Jeffrey Feltman, undersecretary-general for political affairs, met senior government officials in Pyongyang, the North's capital, this month, the first high-level visit by a UN official since 2011.
Mr Feltman, a diplomat, said he did not receive any commitments from the North, but "left the door ajar" for a negotiated settlement.
The UN has suggested holding talks to figure out the substance of negotiations further down the line, and a military-to-military hotline to dampen risks of conflict.
China at the meeting warned against "mutual blaming". "The parties concerned should keep calm and exercise restraint," its deputy permanent representative, Mr Wu Haitao, said.
The North Korean ambassador to the UN, Mr Ja Song Nam, in a rare appearance in the Security Council, condemned Japan for hosting the session and criticised the council for acting as "a tool" of the US.
The council meeting came weeks after the North fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew higher and longer than previous such launches and that the North claimed could deliver heavy nuclear warheads anywhere in the continental US. It has conducted six nuclear tests so far.
Since late last year, the council has imposed a series of sanctions aimed at cutting the North's ability to fund its nuclear weapons programme, including limiting its ability to export labourers for work programmes in Russia and other countries.
Mr Tillerson used the Security Council session to scold Russia for employing North Korean workers in what he called "slave-like" conditions and which he said "calls into question Russia's dedication as a partner for peace".
Mr Trump had on Friday complained that "Russia is not helping" to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons programme.
Russian UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia rebuffed Mr Tillerson's criticism of his country's labour imports from North Korea and questioned the US' "sincerity" in defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Russia and China have criticised the US military exercises conducted with South Korean forces.
Russia's deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov yesterday warned of a risk of escalation over Washington's toughened stance. "It's sad that this powerful element of demands for further pressure on Pyongyang has once again appeared in the American position," he told the RIA Novosti news agency. "It's high time to stop this race of threats, pressure, blackmail and presentation of preconditions and shift to a real search for a political solution," he said.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE