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Washington Sends Mixed Signals To North Korea


President Trump says his secretary of state is wasting his time trying to talk to North Korea and talk it out of its nuclear program. The stunning tweet over the weekend seemed to undercut Rex Tillerson, who is just back from Beijing. He has been trying to keep lines of communication open, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There are a few ways to interpret the president's tweet. Some foreign policy experts say he's trying to play good cop-bad cop with his secretary of state. Others say Trump is undercutting Tillerson in a way that could be dangerous. Suzanne DiMaggio of the think tank New America falls into that second camp. She's met with North Korean officials who describe their nuclear weapons program as a way to protect the regime.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: And when they're hearing statements from the president, whether it's his speech at the U.N. recently or these tweets - what they're hearing is the language of war. And I think it just only serves to reinforce this mindset that the United States is an enemy, and they need to protect themselves at all costs.

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson seems to be trying to send a different message. He was in Beijing over the weekend and told reporters there that he has a few lines of communication to Pyongyang. He said, quote, "we talk to them. We're not in a dark situation." He's been trying to get countries around the world to cut off economic ties with North Korea to pressure Pyongyang back to negotiations on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. DiMaggio says it's important for Tillerson to show he's open to talks.

DIMAGGIO: Which is something the Chinese have said they want urgently. It then could convince the Chinese to ramp up the sanctions and apply more pressure against North Korea.

KELEMEN: China is North Korea's largest trading partner. But again, DiMaggio says the president's tweets undercut Tillerson's message.

DIMAGGIO: They make great headlines, but they also serve to limit U.S. policy options going forward.

KELEMEN: And that worries Joel Wit of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS and co-founder of the website 38 North.

JOEL WIT: We're boxing ourselves in, and it's an enormous mistake because we're going to end up in this no-man's land where all we'll have is hollow threats and sanctions that don't really work.

KELEMEN: The State Department says the channels remain open for now. They're mostly used to talk about humanitarian concerns and the fate of jailed Americans. That's according to Tillerson's spokesman, R.C. Hammond, who says, quote, "there's no covert or overt negotiations with North Korea over nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has made clear they don't want that," he said in an email to NPR. But Joel Wit says diplomacy takes time.

WIT: You know, it's not as if you just sit down with someone and within the first five minutes they're going to say to you, oh, yes, let's have serious discussions. It has to be a process that may take many meetings and may require hours of discussion.

KELEMEN: He also doesn't see North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons anytime soon. That could be the goal for negotiations but not step one.

WIT: Any process that can lead to denuclearization has to be done in phases. I mean it's not as if the North Koreans just have one nuclear weapon and they can ship it out and that's the end of the process. It's going to take a long time.

KELEMEN: Phase one, he says, is getting North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile tests. But he says the North Koreans will want something in return. They've been calling on the U.S. to stop flying strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula and scale back military exercises with South Korea. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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