By Nick Wadhams
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went out of his way Tuesday to note that North Korea hadn’t carried out “provocative acts” since the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on the country, saying that restraint might lead to negotiations over its nuclear arsenal.
“I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past,” Tillerson told reporters at the State Department. “Perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue.”
Tillerson volunteered the remarks on North Korea without prompting at a briefing Tuesday that was arranged to discuss the Trump administration’s new approach to Afghanistan. That suggested his intent was to give Kim Jong Un’s regime an opening and a signal. North Korea hasn’t conducted a missile launch since the United Nations action.
The comments by Tillerson, the top U.S. diplomat, were far more conciliatory than previous warnings from President Donald Trump, who said earlier this month that further threats from Kim’s regime would be met with “fire and fury.” Kim has pledged to develop a nuclear missile that could hit the U.S. mainland.
Kim asked for increased production of solid-fuel engines and rocket warhead tips on a visit to the nation’s Academy of Defense Science, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday. Using solid rather than liquid fuel would allow North Korea to launch missiles with less preparation.
Kim has also said he will watch the U.S.’s conduct “a little more” before deciding whether to fire ballistic missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, as he’d threatened.
The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on Aug. 5 banning exports of coal and iron, among other punishments, after Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July. The restrictions were the third set of sanctions imposed on North Korea in the past 18 months in an effort to halt the country’s push to develop its nuclear- and ballistic-missile capabilities.
The U.S. further tightened its financial restrictions on North Korea Tuesday, slapping sanctions on Chinese and Russian entities it accused of assisting Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It’s also seeking millions of dollars it said moved through the U.S. as part of an alleged scheme.
Prosecutors in Washington are seeking to recover $11 million from companies based in China and Singapore that they accuse of conspiring with North Korea to evade sanctions. In complaints filed Tuesday in federal court in the District of Columbia, they said the companies laundered dollars through U.S. accounts on behalf of sanctioned entities in North Korea.
Tillerson has repeatedly delivered stern messages to North Korea, saying in April, for example, that the two sides were nowhere near ready for negotiations. He has eased that rhetoric in recent weeks, however, saying last week that the U.S. is trying to push North Korea toward talks, even as he underscored that a military strike remains an option.
“We need to see more on their part but I want to acknowledge the steps they’ve taken thus far,” Tillerson said Tuesday. “I think it’s important to take note of that.”