BEIJING — The Trump administration acknowledged Saturday for the first time that it is in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests, opening a possible way forward beyond the escalating threats of a military confrontation from both sides.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.
“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” he added. “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” a reference to North Korea’s capital.
The two countries have been trading public threats over North Korea’s nuclear program, with the North declaring that its missiles have the capacity to strike the United States and President Trump vowing to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Tillerson gave no indication of what the administration might be willing to give up in any negotiations, and Trump has made clear he would make no concessions.
Many inside and outside government have noted there were no major military exercises between the United States and South Korea scheduled until the spring, so the promise of scaling them back could be dangled.
But Kim would be unlikely to see that as much of a victory and he has rejected any talks that would ultimately require him to disarm.
In any case, there was no indication that Kim’s government was prepared to talk or had even responded. Speaking at the residence of the US ambassador to Beijing after a meeting with China’s top leadership, Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil and a newcomer to diplomacy, would not say if the North Koreans had responded, or seemed likely to respond.
In the past week, North Korea has declared that the country might conduct an atmospheric nuclear test and that it had the right to shoot down US warplanes in international waters.
“We can talk to them,” Tillerson said at the end of a long day of engaging China’s leadership. “We do talk to them,” he added, without elaborating. When asked whether those channels ran through China, he shook his head.
“Directly,” he said. “We have our own channels.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said that, if elected, he would sit down and negotiate directly with Kim, perhaps over a hamburger.
He seemed confident that his dealmaking skills could extend to nuclear disarmament, but at times talked about getting other powers — chiefly China and Iran — to deal with North Korea for him, because they would have more leverage.
But Tillerson seemed to suggest that the urgency of the problem, with Kim “launching 84 missiles” in his brief few years as the country’s leader, and its efforts to develop a hydrogen bomb, called for direct talks.
And while he said the ultimate goal of those talks had to be denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — something the two Koreas agreed on in 1992 — progress toward that goal would be “incremental.”
His comments marked the first sign that the Trump administration has been trying its own version of what the Obama administration did with Iran: using a series of backchannel, largely secret communications that, after years of negotiation, resulted in a nuclear accord.
But Tillerson was quick to distinguish the very different circumstances of North Korea and Iran: Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, Tehran just a program that could have led to them. “We are not going to put together a nuclear deal in North Korea that is as flimsy as the one in Iran,” he added.
Tillerson’s comments came as the administration is nearing major decision points about North Korea. While he argued that economic sanctions were finally beginning to bite — “the Chinese are saying it is having an effect,” he argued — he did not claim they would change the North’s behavior.
His visit to China came as the Pentagon was considering a variety of far more aggressive military moves, including whether to strike at the country’s missile launching sites if it sees preparations for an atmospheric test — which would spew radioactivity into the skies — or use missile defenses to try to shoot down missiles.
Speaking less than an hour after he left a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, Tillerson said the most important thing was to lower the temperature of the threats being exchanged in recent days between Kim and Trump.
“The whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” he said. “If North Korea would stop firing its missiles, that would calm things down a lot.”
That the United States would be in contact with North Korea is not surprising, said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, “but it sounds a little too early.”
“The timing is unexpected,” he said. “It was perfectly clear that both North Korea and the United States, and others, are in the prenegotiation bargaining process.”
In Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently dissolved the lower house of Parliament and called a snap election, the news that the United States was already in direct contact with North Korea could give ammunition to Abe’s opponents. The Japanese leader has steadfastly maintained that it is not the time for dialogue with North Korea.
Tillerson’s comments came after three back-to-back meetings in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, after his trip was delayed by a malfunction in his plane. The aging Boeing 757 stranded him in Japan during a refueling stop. He eventually got to Beijing, half a day late, after boarding a C-130 cargo plane.