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US directly communicating with North Korea, seeks dialogue

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the disclosure about the communications during a trip to China and said it was important to find a way to reduce tensions.

A combination of file photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP.

BEIJING - The United States said on Saturday it was directly communicating with North Korea, seeking to start a dialogue with Pyongyang as its advancing nuclear and missile programs stoke fears of an armed confrontation.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the disclosure about the communications during a trip to China and said it was important to find a way to reduce tensions with North Korea.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson told a group of reporters in Beijing.

“We ask: ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.”

He said that communication was happening directly and cited two or three U.S. channels open to Pyongyang.

“We can talk to them. We do talk to them,” he said, without elaborating about which Americans were involved in those contacts or how frequent they were.

The goal of any initial dialogue would be simple: finding out directly from North Korea what it wants to discuss.

“We haven’t even gotten that far yet,” he said.

Tillerson’s remarks followed a day of meetings in Beijing, which has been alarmed by recent exchanges of war-like threats and personal insults between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump.

”I think the whole situation’s a bit overheated right now,“ Tillerson said. ”I think everyone would like for it to calm down.

“Obviously it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That’d calm things down a lot.”

South Korean officials have voiced concerns that North Korea could conduct more provocative acts near the anniversary of the founding of its communist party on 10 October, or possibly when China holds its Communist Party Congress on 18 October.

North Korea is fast advancing toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. It conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 3 and has threatened to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

ECONOMIC SQUEEZE

US officials including Tillerson say Beijing, after long accounting for some 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, appears increasingly willing to cut ties with its neighbour’s economy by adopting United Nations sanctions.

Tillerson said he believed China’s more assertive posture was due to its realization that North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities had advanced too far.

“I think they also have a sense that we’re beginning to run out of time, and that we really have to change the dynamic,” Tillerson said.

The goal of the sanctions would be getting North Korea’s Kim to view nuclear weapons as a liability, not a strength.

Still, the US intelligence community does not believe Kim is likely to give up his weapons program willingly, regardless of sanctions.

“(Tillerson‘s) working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies, which say there’s no amount of pressure that can be put on them to stop,” Senator Bob Corker told a hearing at the chamber on Thursday.

Kim sees nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles as “his ticket to survival,” Corker said.

Tillerson agreed that Kim’s nuclear and missile programs were aimed at ensuring his own security, and renewed assurances that the United States did not seek to topple Kim’s government.

“Look, our objective is denuclearisation (of North Korea). Our objective is not to get rid of you. Our objective is not to collapse your regime,” he said.