US ‘probing’ to see if North Korea interested in dialogue

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People on September 30, 2017 in Beijing, China.  REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool

The United States is probing North Korea to see whether it is interested in dialogue and has multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Saturday.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson told a small group of reporters during a trip to China. “We ask: Would you like to talk? We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation.”

Tillerson held talks with China’s leaders on Saturday as the United States looks to tighten an economic squeeze on North Korea to persuade it to retreat from its nuclear arms and missile programs.

US officials say Beijing appears increasingly willing to cut ties to North Korea’s economy by enforcing UN sanctions, after long accounting for some 90 percent of its neighbour’s foreign trade.

Tillerson needs to overcome some basic US assumptions about North Korea and China. The US intelligence community does not believe Kim is likely to willingly give up his weapons program.

“(Tillerson’s) working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies, which say there’s no amount of pressure that can be put on them to stop,” Senator Bob Corker told a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Tillerson will also need to convince China to impose economic sanctions on North Korea so harsh that Kim might question the survival of his regime.

China says it will strictly and fully enforce UN resolutions against North Korea and its Commerce Ministry on Thursday said North Korean firms in China and joint ventures in China and overseas would be shut down by January, in line with the latest UN resolution.

But the latest sanctions need time before they begin to bite, the official China Daily cautioned in an editorial on Friday.

Trump visit

US President Donald Trump, who is due to visit China in November, has called for it to do more on North Korea and has promised to take steps to rebalance a trade relationship that his administration says puts US businesses at a disadvantage.

Tillerson told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Trump was looking forward to his China visit. Tillerson also held talks with President Xi Jinping.

“The correct direction must be upheld in developing China-U.S. relations. Both countries’ common interests far outweigh our disputes, and cooperation is the only correct choice for both sides,” China’s Foreign Ministry cited Xi as saying.

The U.S. State Department did not suggest any major announcements would be made on Tillerson’s trip, but the China Daily said it needed to be more than a “routine show of mutual goodwill” ahead of Trump’s visit.

“The guest and his hosts must … straighten at least one thing out – what each can expect from the other to ensure the situation on the Korean peninsula does not deteriorate and spiral out of control,” it said.

“We are not seeking regime change or collapse,” in North Korea, State Department Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton, who is travelling with Tillerson, told a Senate hearing on Thursday. Thornton’s remarks were welcomed in Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the United States had issued many “positive signals” that the North Korean nuclear issue should be resolved via talks.

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