The big 'if' in Tillerson's overture to North Korea

WASHINGTON - North Korea wants to prevent war, a senior United Nations official said after a visit to Pyongyang last week that he believed left the door ajar for a negotiated solution to the impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons.

In Washington US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went further, saying the US was ready to talk with Pyongyang without pre-conditions - essentially dropping a key US demand that North Korea must first accept that any negotiations would have to be about giving up its nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Tillerson's remarks, made at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Tuesday (Dec 12), were seen as a softening of the US' position. Significantly, he said: "It's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your programme. They have too much invested in it. And the President is very realistic about that as well."

UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman, who became the highest-level UN official to visit North Korea since 2011, after his four-day visit also expressed hopes for talks. On Tuesday he told reporters: "Time will tell what was the impact of our discussions, but I think we have left the door ajar and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide."

Analysts told The Straits Times that Mr Tillerson's overture could open a much-needed window for dialogue and possibly bring about a breakthrough in the current stalemate. However, question remains whether the US's top diplomat speaks for the Trump administration.

"This is a significant development and could open a window of opportunity for talks - IF he speaks for the administration," Dr Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow for the Korea chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, told The Straits Times via e-mail.

"That's a big if," she added. "It is not clear if Trump signed off on his statement. Given the tense relations between Tillerson and Trump, it is hard to know if the Secretary of State speaks for the President."

Mr Trump has publicly contradicted Mr Tillerson in the past, specifically on North Korea. And for weeks there has been media speculation that Mr Tillerson may resign.

Likewise, Mr Will Saetren, a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington DC, has his doubts. "It's a positive step but I take it with a grain of salt," he told ST.

He added that while this seemed good good on the surface, it was not certain if Mr Trump will change his mind "tomorrow or the next day, or the next time North Korea launches a missile - which will happen, they are on the path towards testing proven ICBM capability and they won't stop".

Just hours after Mr Tillerson made the comments, the White House issued an ambiguous statement that did not make it clear if Mr Trump had approved the speech.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement: "The President's views on North Korea have not changed."

North Korea was "acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world. North Korea's actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea", she added.

Still, Mr Tillerson's comments were cautiously welcomed by analysts. Dr Denny Roy, Senior Fellow at the East West Centre in Hawaii, told ST via e-mail: "Tillerson's comments are a welcome opportunity to reduce tensions, at least temporarily, if Pyongyang chooses to respond affirmatively to the offer by agreeing to a meeting and not insisting on its own pre-conditions."

He noted the useful ambiguity in the terms "talks".

He said: "In the recent past the policy has been that Washington will agree to 'talks' without pre-conditions, but not "negotiations... The US government could agree to 'talks' while still claiming it has not given ground."

Dr Roy added: "I think the table is set for Pyongyang to declare victory a little early and start leveraging the progress they've made so far. This way they avoid pushing Trump into military action. Many authoritative US commentators, some within government, are already saying North Korea has shown enough that we must assume they have the capability to hit the US homeland with a nuclear explosive."

Mr Saetren also expressed cautious optimism.

"The most significant thing is it signals a shift that the administration might actually be able to tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea, for now," he said. "Previously that has been completely unacceptable."

He added that he hoped it would work out as it was the only way forward.

"The tit for tat war of words can only end badly for everyone. Hopefully this is the United States beginning to construct the off ramp that we need," he said.