Tillerson says US getting ‘potentially positive signals’ from North Korea

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that the U.S. is receiving “potentially positive signals” from North Korea, but that the two countries are still "a long way" from direct negotiations about Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Speaking alongside Ethiopia's foreign minister during a press conference in Addis Ababa, Tillerson said: “I think as President Trump has indicated, there are potentially positive signals coming from North Korea by way of their intra-Korean dialogue.”

"In terms of direct talks with the United States... we're a long way from negotiations," said Tillerson, who cautioned that the first step should be "talks about talks."

"We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it," he added.

Tillerson’s comments come after the South Korean president’s office said on Wednesday that the North “clearly stated” it is willing to hold talks on denuclearization with the U.S. Following a meeting between Kim Jong Un and envoys from Seoul on Monday, the South Korean representatives said the North would suspend nuclear tests while any talks were underway.

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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.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

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.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

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

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

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.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bids farewell to Chad's Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif as he departs N'Djamena, Chad, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tours an anti-poaching forensic lab at the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi, Kenya, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the Presidential Palace in Djibouti, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart Addis Ababa International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures during a news conference at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson look at a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, as they arrive to a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Cem Ozdel/Pool
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South Korea’s presidential national security director Chung Eui-yong also revealed that the rival neighbors had agreed to hold a landmark third summit meeting between Kim and South Korea’s president at a border village next month.

Tweeting on Tuesday about the intra-Korean talks, President Donald Trump lauded the “possible progress.”

“For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!” he added.

Secretary Tillerson will still be in Africa when the South Koreans brief the U.S. in more detail about their conversations with the North Koreans later this week. The White House will be assembling the team but it is unclear who will be attending from the State Department.

The administration still has not nominated an Ambassador to South Korea, with career diplomat Susan Thornton remaining in the position of acting Assistant Secretary for East Asia as she awaits confirmation. The U.S. envoy for North Korea policy Joseph Yun, who was the chief negotiator, quit last week. The State Department has yet to name a replacement.

During Thursday's press conference Tillerson also said that African countries should be careful not to forfeit their sovereignty when they accept loans from China, the continent's biggest trading partner.

Trump's Secretary of State is using his first diplomatic trip to Africa to bolster security alliances on a continent increasingly turning to Beijing for aid and trade.

The U.S. is the leading aid donor to Africa but China surpassed it as a trade partner in 2009.

Tillerson also dismissed reports he had rejected a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while they are both in Africa as “silly.”

“If it doesn't work out here, he and I see each other often around the world and we have each other's telephone numbers and we do use them," he said.

Tillerson’s Africa visit comes just months after Trump described African nations as “shithole countries” during a White House meeting.

Francis Whittaker contributed reporting from London.

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