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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Trump-Kim meeting will not involve negotiations, says Tillerson

US secretary of state says president's decision was swayed by 'dramatic' change in Kim's posture

The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discusses President Donald Trump's decision to meet North Korea's leader at a news conference in Djibouti on March 9, 2018. Jonathan Ernst via AP
The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discusses President Donald Trump's decision to meet North Korea's leader at a news conference in Djibouti on March 9, 2018. Jonathan Ernst via AP

The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew a distinction between "talks" with North Korea and "negotiations," arguing that President Donald Trump's willingness to chat with Kim Jong-un should not be construed as anything more than that.

The stunning announcement that Mr Trump had agreed to a meeting with the North Korean leader raised questions about what had changed after months of Mr Tillerson and other Trump officials insisting the conditions were not right for negotiations with Pyongyang.

Mr Tillerson said Mr Trump has been open to mere talks and a meeting with Mr Kim "for some time," and had decided on Thursday that "the time was right".

"In the president's judgment, that time has arrived now," Mr Tillerson told reporters in Djibouti on Friday during a trip to Africa.

He did not define the precise difference between talks and negotiations, and it was unclear what the two countries — still technically at war — would have to discuss if not a deal to address concerns about the North's nuclear weapons programme. Ostensibly, they could hold preliminary conversations to see if there is enough common ground and good will to proceed to formal negotiations.

Explaining Mr Trump's decision about meeting Mr Kim, the secretary of state said the US had witnessed a shift from North Korea that became apparent in a rare visit to Pyongyang on Monday by a South Korean delegation who then travelled to Washington to brief US officials.

He said the dispatch from the meeting "was the most forward-leaning report that we've had, in terms of Kim Jong-un's not just willingness but his strong desire for talks".

"What changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way," Mr Tillerson said. "In all honesty, that came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well."

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Read more:

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As the Trump administration ramped up its "maximum pressure campaign" on North Korea over the past year, Mr Tillerson was one of the more enthusiastic advocates within the cabinet for trying to talk to the North Koreans, while other officials warned the president of the risks of rewarding Mr Kim too soon. For months the administration gave mixed messages about just what "preconditions" — if any — needed to be met to merit talks.

Ultimately, Mr Trump decided that Mr Kim's willingness to discuss denuclearisation and commit to halt testing was enough. Mr Tillerson said the decision to agree to the meeting was "a decision the president took himself".

"This is something he's had on his mind for quite some time," Mr Tillerson said. "So now I think it's a question of agreeing on the timing of that first meeting between the two of them and a location and that will take some weeks before we get all that worked out."