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Tillerson offers olive branch to North Korea if it abandons nuclear weapons

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, Dec. 5, 2017. Tillerson’s reception in Brussels was distinctly chilly, as disappointment among European diplomats in President Donald Trump’s nationalistic tone and insulting messages on Twitter built into quiet fury on the eve of an expected announcement that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Virginia Mayo/ Pool via The New York Times Copyright 2017)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday urged North Korea, for the second time this week, to enter negotiations and give up its nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the United Nations Security Council in a session called for foreign ministers, Tillerson said the United States asks that any talks be preceded by a "sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behavior."

North Korea has accelerated the pace of its missile program, launching 40 ballistic missiles and conducting three nuclear tests over the past two years. Each test exhibited technological improvements.

Tillerson did not repeat an assertion he made Tuesday that there are no preconditions to having talks. He said the ultimate goal must be the "complete, verifiable and irreversible abandonment of its nuclear weapons programs."

"The international community remains firm in our determination that we will not accept a nuclear North Korea," he said.

That position could preclude any negotiations. Pyongyang has been adamant that it will never even consider abandoning its nuclear weapons program, which it regards as a deterrent against a U.S. invasion designed to oust the regime.

"The DPRK has a choice," said Tillerson, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "It can reverse course, give up its unlawful nuclear weapons programs, and join the community of nations, or it can continue to condemn its people to poverty and isolation."

North Korea's ambassador to the U.N., Ja Song Nam, joined the Security Council session in a rare appearance. Traditionally, countries being discussed at the Security Council are often invited to attend.

The Security Council meeting was called amid rising concerns the world is on the brink of nuclear conflict. North Korea has boasted its missiles are now capable of striking anywhere in the continental United States. The Trump administration has responded by saying it is prepared for a military conflict, if necessary, even while Tillerson continues to try to isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically by getting more countries to fully implement strict U.N. sanctions.

"The worst possible thing that could happen is for us all to sleepwalk into a war that might have very dramatic circumstances," U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Thursday.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin warned Thursday that the United States should not further aggravate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom President Trump has derided several times by referring to him mockingly as "Little Rocket Man."

Tillerson alluded to the possibility of military action but quickly followed up by saying the goal remains a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

"We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation, but we do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea," he said. "The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution."

After calling for an interlude in North Korea's missile testing, he added, "The United States will not allow the regime in Pyongyang to hold the world hostage."

Tillerson called on Russia and China to increase pressure on Pyongyang beyond adhering to stringent U.N. sanctions already in place.

"Continuing to allow North Korean laborers to toil in slave-like conditions inside Russia in exchange for wages used to fund nuclear weapons programs calls into question Russia's dedication as a partner for peace," Tillerson said. "Similarly, as Chinese crude oil flows to North Korean refineries, the United States questions China's commitment to solving an issue that has serious implications for the security of its own citizens."

In a town hall meeting Tuesday with State Department employees, Tillerson said the "pressure campaign" could potentially deny North Korea of $2.5 billion in export revenue from coal, textiles and labor, and imports on fuel and oil. State Department officials say about 90 percent of North Korea's earnings from exports has dried up because of a strict series of sanctions imposed on the country.

In remarks Tuesday at the Atlantic Council, Tillerson said the United States would talk with North Korea without preconditions. But the White House issued a statement a few hours later that appeared to undercut him by saying: "The president's views on North Korea have not changed. North Korea is acting in an unsafe way, not only toward Japan, China and South Korea, but the entire world."

His remarks set off a round of recrimination from White House aides, who said he had "not learned his lesson" since Trump rebuked Tillerson for seeking negotiations with Pyongyang. The aides called Tillerson "irrelevant" and predicted he would be gone by early next year.