Tillerson, in new overture to North Korea, says ready to talk without pre-conditions

WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered on Tuesday to begin direct talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, backing away from U.S. demands that Pyongyang must first accept that any negotiations would have to be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.

"Let's just meet," Tillerson said in a speech to Washington's Atlantic Council think tank, presenting a new diplomatic overture amid heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear and missile advances and harsh rhetoric between the two sides.

Tensions have flared anew since North Korea said it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile last month in what it called a "breakthrough" that put the U.S. mainland within range.

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Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

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ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

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Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

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Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

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ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

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WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

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Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

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Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

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Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

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Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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While reiterating Washington's long-standing position that it cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, Tillerson said the United States was "ready to talk any time they're ready to talk," but that there would first have to be a “period of quiet” without nuclear and missile tests.

Tillerson also disclosed that the United States had been talking to China about how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a collapse of the government in Pyongyang, and that Beijing had been given assurances that if U.S. forces had to cross into North Korea they would pull back across the border into the South.

But he made clear that the United States wants to resolve the North Korea standoff through peaceful diplomacy and, in terms far more tempered than President Donald Trump’s recent threats against Pyongyang, offered to hold exploratory talks.

"We can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table," he said.

"Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards," Tillerson said, suggesting that any initial contacts would be about setting the ground rules for formal negotiations.

DOES TILLERSON HAVE TRUMP'S BACKING?

It was not immediately clear whether Tillerson, whose influence has appeared to wane within the administration, had Trump's full support to seek such a diplomatic opening.

Tillerson has previously expressed a desire to use diplomatic channels with Pyongyang, but Trump tweeted in October that such engagement would be a waste of time.

North Korea, for its part, has made clear that it has little interest in negotiations with the United States until it has developed the ability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, something most experts say it has still not achieved.

"We're ready to have the first meeting without pre-conditions," Tillerson said.

"It’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program," he said. "They have too much invested in it. The president is very realistic about that as well."

Tillerson’s comments appeared to mark a shift from previous statements by senior U.S. officials that North Korea would have to show it is serious about discussing nuclear disarmament before formal talks could begin.

Tillerson also said that the United States was working to tighten enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea, especially further measures that China can apply, and that Washington had a full menu of military options if such a response is needed.

“It is important that the diplomatic effort be backed up with a very credible military alternative,” he said, adding that Trump “intends to make sure that they do not have a deliverable nuclear weapon to the shores of the United States.”

He called on North Korea to show restraint.

“It’s going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decided to test another device,” Tillerson said. “So we continue to indicate to them that we need a period of quiet. You need to tell us you want to talk.”

The United Nations political affairs chief told senior North Korean officials during a visit to Pyongyang this week that there was an "urgent need to prevent miscalculations and open channels to reduce the risks of conflict," the world body said.

Jeffrey Feltman, the highest-level U.N. official to visit North Korea since 2011, met with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk, the United Nations said in a statement on Saturday after Feltman arrived back in Beijing. (Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Clive McKeef and James Dalgleish)

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