North Korea has shown no interest in pursuing talks on its nuclear and missile programs, the U.S. State Department said Saturday after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the United States was communicating directly with Pyongyang.
"North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, "despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilizing forces north of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone]."
Tillerson was in Beijing on Saturday, seeking China's cooperation on a "maximum pressure" campaign against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Tillerson revealed the U.S. had opened a direct channel of communication with North Korea and was investigating whether the government of Kim Jong Un was interested in pursuing talks to give up its nuclear weapons.
Speaking with a small group of journalists Saturday in Beijing after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials, Tillerson said, "We are probing, so stay tuned. We talk to them ... directly through our own channels."
When asked what they talk about, Tillerson said, "We ask: Would you like to talk?"
The United States and North Korea typically speak to each other through other governments or former officials.
The remarks from Tillerson were the clearest to date about how the two countries interact, and they came amid rising tensions and a war of words between them.
Over the past few weeks, following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test — its most powerful to date — President Donald Trump has referred to the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, as “Rocket Man.” Trump also said at the U.N. on September 19 that the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea if it carried out an attack.
Kim responded by calling Trump a “dotard” and North Korea’s U.N. ambassador said the U.S. would “pay dearly for his speech,” threatening to carry out an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
Tillerson said Saturday, “Actually, what we need is to calm things down. I think they are well overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down.”
He also added, "Obviously, it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles.”
One focus of Tillerson’s whirlwind visit, which came just after Chinese and American officials met this week in Washington to host the Social and Culture Dialogue, was to discuss details of Trump’s visit to Asia and China in November.
China has a weeklong holiday starting Sunday, and shortly after that the ruling Communist Party will host high-level political meetings and a once-in-five-years leadership reshuffle. Tillerson said he made the trip to discuss North Korea and Trump’s trip before China got too busy with the party congress.
There were concerns, however, that North Korea might use China’s National Day anniversary and holiday or the upcoming meetings as an opportunity to carry out more tests. When asked whether an atmospheric nuclear test would trigger a military response from the United States, and whether that would cross a red line, Tillerson said Trump would make that decision.
Tillerson added, though, that as far as he knew, the president had not drawn any red lines.
Trump on Friday announced his forthcoming visit to Asia. In brief remarks to reporters Saturday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he thought Trump's visit to his nation would be “special, wonderful and successful,” and important to U.S.-China relations.
Earlier Saturday, Tillerson met with China's top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The U.S. is conferring closely with Chinese officials on Beijing's commitment to curbing imports of North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood.
If fully implemented, the ban on those items could substantially reduce North Korea’s revenues this year. North Korea earned $1.5 billion from the export of the items to China in 2016, according to the State Department.
China is North Korea’s No. 1 trade partner. Washington says bringing China on board is key to cutting off Pyongyang’s ability to earn hard currency.
Douglas Paal, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, said, however, that China’s influence over North Korea is limited.
“The North is very reluctant to take instructions from China. It will exploit whatever it can get from China, but it doesn't look for political guidance from China. So this is a problem we [the U.S.] and South Korea are going to have to handle directly with North Korea as we go forward,” Paal told VOA.
VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.