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Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson Calls For New Approach To North Korea


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is calling for a new approach to North Korea. He's in Asia now consulting with Japan, South Korea and China over how to deal with Pyongyang. The options, though, are limited, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Tillerson was blunt at his news conference in Tokyo. Two decades of diplomacy and pressure have failed to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs.


REX TILLERSON: So we have 20 years of failed approach, and that includes a period in which the United States provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea.

KELEMEN: He seemed to be alluding to food aid during a famine in North Korea and fuel provided under a deal to freeze its nuclear program in the 1990s. The secretary says he's talking about a new approach, and though the Trump administration has suggested all options are on the table, Tillerson appeared to be trying to ease concerns about military options.


TILLERSON: North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea.

KELEMEN: So was that an olive branch to Pyongyang? Joel Wit of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University says he wouldn't read too much into this.

JOEL WIT: I know the North Koreans are watching very, very closely what the Trump administration is thinking. And so I'm not quite sure how they'll take that. But you're right. They could take it as saying, maybe there is an opening here.

KELEMEN: There are some Korea watchers, Wit included, who say this is a chance for President Trump to test his negotiating skills. After all, he's known for his book "The Art Of The Deal."

WIT: Under the right conditions, it may be possible to at least stop the growth of their nuclear and missile programs.

KELEMEN: But that means offering North Korea something, perhaps some regional security guarantees. Wit says the U.S. also needs China's help to keep up the pressure for what he calls coercive diplomacy. Secretary Tillerson will be in China this weekend to talk about that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.