Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the Trump administration is open to direct talks with North Korea as long as the agenda is right — that is, denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
As he prepared to chair a U.N. Security Council meeting on the subject, Tillerson sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep to explain his approach. The secretary says North Korea has to come to the table willing to talk about giving up its nuclear weapons.
"You know if you listen to the North Korea, their reason for having nuclear weapons is they believe it is their only pathway to secure the ongoing existence of their regime," Tillerson explained. "We hope to convince them is that: you do not need these weapons to secure the existence of your regime. ... We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean peninsula," he stressed, adding he believes that China shares this goal and is beginning to question whether North Korea is a "liability."
The Trump administration called the U.N. Security Council meeting not to pass a new resolution, but rather to highlight the need for members, including China, to do more to enforce the sanctions already on the books. Tillerson is to meet his Chinese counterpart in New York Friday.
In the interview, Inskeep asked the former ExxonMobil CEO turned secretary of state whether he has a mission statement now for the State Department. Tillerson said it is "to provide the national security needs of the American people and to advance America's economic interests around the world." He admitted it has been slow going to fill top jobs at the State Department, but Tillerson said he's relying on career officials and launching a survey of 75,000 employees across the globe, as he tries to reorganize.
Asked if his past business dealings and relationships with Russian officials are helpful, Tillerson said they at least "don't have to figure out who this guy Rex Tillerson is because they've dealt with me for so many years. Perhaps that's helpful in that my ability to communicate is very straightforward very candid. It's not nuanced because I have found in dealing with the Russian leadership in the past that is what they respect."
When he was in Moscow earlier this month, he said U.S.-Russian relations are at the lowest point since the Cold War. The Russians, he told NPR, agreed with that assessment. "We didn't solve anything in that meeting," Tillerson said, adding that Russia has to decide whether it wants to be "a positive part of the global world order not a disruptive part."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
America's top diplomat says he wants direct talks with North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says this is the goal - North Korea must end up with no nuclear weapons at all.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Tillerson called for direct talks in an interview with NPR. He is preparing today to chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The world's great powers consider a nation that's set off nuclear devices and is testing missiles to deliver them. President Trump said yesterday there is the chance of a, quote, "major, major conflict."
INSKEEP: Despite some bluster, the president so far has used the same basic tools that past presidents have tried - economic sanctions against North Korea and seeking help from North Korea's neighbor, China. Weeks ago, Secretary Tillerson signaled a desire to try something different. And that was our starting point when we sat facing each other at the State Department.
We heard when you said the era of strategic patience is over, so we know what your policy is not. Is there a word or phrase you can give us to say what your approach to North Korea is?
REX TILLERSON: Yes. Our approach to North Korea is to have them change their posture towards any future talks. I think when we say that our strategic patience is over - in the past, I think we have always negotiated our way to the negotiating table. When they act up, we would negotiate our way to get them to come to the table and then decide what we're going to give them to have them behave.
We don't have the running room left to do that now, given how far advanced their program has become. So this is an approach that is to put pressure on them through implementation of all the sanctions, as well as other diplomatic pressures and calling on others to cause them to change their view of what will really allow them to achieve the security that they say they seek.
INSKEEP: Do you intend to direct talks with North Korea? Is that your goal?
TILLERSON: Obviously, that would be the way we would like to solve this but North Korea has to decide they're ready to talk to us about the right agenda. And the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. That's been the agenda for the last 20 years.
INSKEEP: Well, help me understand what success is from your point of view. What does the goal have to be?
TILLERSON: Well, our goal is the same as that of China, which is a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
INSKEEP: No nuclear weapons for North Korea?
TILLERSON: A denuclearized Korean Peninsula. It's very clear. That's China's stated policy. It has been our stated policy. It's been the stated policy of our allies in the region. And I would, you know, I would quickly add, you know, we did our part. We took our nuclear weapons out of the Korean Peninsula. It's time for North Korea to take their weapons out as well.
INSKEEP: Is that a realistic goal?
TILLERSON: It is our goal. It is our only goal.
INSKEEP: And would you go so far as to say that is an absolute goal? I'm thinking of the way that President Obama during the nuclear negotiations with Iran said Iran will not have a nuclear weapon - period.
TILLERSON: Well, we...
INSKEEP: Are you prepared to say North Korea will not end this process with nuclear weapons - period?
TILLERSON: We must have a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. That is our goal, pure and simple.
INSKEEP: Nothing less?
TILLERSON: Nothing less.
INSKEEP: Regardless of the methods?
TILLERSON: I'm not sure what you mean when you say regardless of the methods.
INSKEEP: I guess I'm asking if that's a red line for you, North Korea keeping any nuclear weapons at all.
TILLERSON: We don't have any red lines. I think what you're talking about perhaps is, how do we get there? And we say we can't begin the process of getting there until North Korea comes to the table with a willingness to talk about how we get there and how they achieve their objective.
You know, if you listen to the North Koreans and the regime in Pyongyang, their reason for having nuclear weapons is they believe it is their only pathway to secure the ongoing existence of their regime. What we hope to convince them is you do not need these weapons to secure the existence of your regime. We've been...
INSKEEP: Meaning you could assure the existence - or the continued existence...
TILLERSON: We have been very clear as to what our objectives are and equally clear what our objectives are not. And we do not seek regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. And again, that is entirely consistent with the objectives of others in the region as well.
INSKEEP: Mr. Secretary, people will know that you're trying to work through China on this and make sure that China is applying the appropriate pressure, one of many things you're trying to deal with China on. I'd like to ask about the relationship between the president and the president of China, Xi Jinping. How important is that personal relationship between the two leaders?
TILLERSON: Well, it's extraordinarily important first to just the broader relationship of where U.S.-China relations are going to find themselves over the next two to three to four decades. I think we are at a bit of an inflection point in the U.S.-China relationship. Now, North Korea is a threat that presents itself right up front to both of us. And in our conversations with the Chinese - and we have been very clear to them.
I was on my initial trips to Beijing and then in the visit of President Xi to Mar-A-Lago, the president and I were able to be very clear to them that things have to change in North Korea. And we need their help doing that. What China is beginning to re-evaluate is whether North Korea is any kind of an asset to them or whether North Korea themselves and the regime have become a liability to China's own security because as I've said to my Chinese counterparts, those missiles go in all directions.
INSKEEP: When you say two or three or four decades, suddenly many things beyond North Korea are on the table. China wants to dominate its region, wants to dominate the South China Sea, has a different view of the world than the United States. How do you persuade China to see its interests differently and in a less threatening manner to the United States long-term?
TILLERSON: Well, I think we need to understand one another and understand that China is on a pathway of continuing to emerge with their own people in terms of providing a quality of life to their own population. You know, they've made enormous progress over the last 10 to 15 years. Five hundred million Chinese have moved out of poverty into middle class status.
Our understanding of them, and I think they need to have an understanding of us, is that we do not seek to constrain their need to continue their economic growth and to continue to help their people enjoy a better quality of life. As they are pursuing that though, they have to do that in a way that supports stability around the rest of the world as well.
INSKEEP: Does that mean they need to constrain their ambitions or that you need to constrain them?
TILLERSON: Not their economic ambitions.
INSKEEP: Their strategic ambitions, their ambitions to power.
TILLERSON: Well, it depends on how they view those strategic ambitions and whether those present a threat to stability for the rest of the world or not. And I think, you know, a specific example obviously is their activity towards island building in the South China Sea and in particular their militarization of those islands.
We have had very, very frank conversations and exchanges with the Chinese around these activities and our view that this destabilizes the areas of the South China Sea, rather than create stability.
INSKEEP: OK. That's part of our talk with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He was at the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.