WASHINGTON — President Trump seemed to undercut his own secretary of state on Sunday as he belittled the prospect of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear weapons crisis with North Korea even as the administration was seeking to open lines of communication.
In a fresh set of Twitter messages from his New Jersey golf club, where he was spending the weekend, Trump diminished Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s outreach to Pyongyang and its autocratic leader, Kim Jong Un, leaving the impression that he was focused on possible military action.
On a visit to China, Tillerson acknowledged on Saturday that he was trying to open talks.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote, using the derogatory nickname he has assigned to Kim. “Save your energy Rex,” he added, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
North Korea has provoked a confrontation with the United States and its Asian allies in recent weeks with its sixth test of a nuclear bomb and its first successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially deliver a warhead to the US mainland.
Trump has responded by vowing to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend the United States or its allies, while ratcheting up economic pressure through sanctions.
Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Beijing on Saturday that he was seeking a diplomatic solution.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” he said. For the first time, he disclosed that the United States had two or three channels to Pyongyang asking “Would you like to talk?” Therefore, he said, “we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.”
There have been no indications that Kim is any more interested in talks than Trump. He has responded to the president’s threats with more of his own, castigating Trump as a “mentally deranged US dotard” and suggesting through his foreign minister that he might order the first atmospheric nuclear test the world has seen in 37 years.
Negotiations with North Korea have long proved frustrating to US leaders. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both tried talks and granted concessions while ultimately failing to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. But national security analysts have said there is no viable military option at this point without risking devastating casualties.
White House officials have had no comment on Tillerson’s disclosure, and it was unclear whether Trump was aware of it in advance or was using his Twitter feed to play a diplomatic version of good cop, bad cop with his secretary of state.
Trump plans to visit China, South Korea, and Japan in November, among other destinations, to keep up regional pressure on Pyongyang.
Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States had no choice but to seek a diplomatic agreement.
“I think that there’s more going on than meets the eye,” he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC before the president’s tweets. “I think Tillerson understands that every intelligence agency we have says there’s no amount of economic pressure you can put on North Korea to get them to stop this program because they view this as their survival.”
“Should we step it up a little bit?” he asked. “The answer is absolutely yes. I mean, we should step it up. I mean, you know, we’re moving to a place where we’re going to end up with a binary choice soon.”
Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil with no prior government experience, has been deeply frustrated working for Trump, according to associates, who have said it is not clear how long he will stay.
This was not the first time the secretary of state has been publicly contradicted by Trump. In June, the president launched a harsh broadside against the Persian Gulf state of Qatar barely an hour after Tillerson, trying to mediate a dispute among Arab neighbors, called for a “calm and thoughtful dialogue.”
The president has not shied away from undercutting other members of his own team during his eight months in office. The most sensational example came in July, when Trump spent days publicly castigating Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “very weak” and saying that he regretted appointing him.