After advocates for peace and diplomacy cautiously applauded Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's declaration on Tuesday that the Trump administration would agree to direct talks with North Korea to address rising nuclear tensions without the precondition that North Korea denuclearize prior to negotiations, the White House issued a statement walking back Tillerson's comments.
"The President's views on North Korea have not changed," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement to reporters. "North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world. North Korea's actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea."
Speaking at a D.C. think tank on Tuesday, Tillerson's had said the administration was "ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk" and would "have the first meeting without precondition."
Several anonymous sources within the White House told the New York Times that Tillerson's "conciliatory tone" had "alarmed" officials within the administration "because they feared that it would sow confusion among allies after Mr. Trump rallied them behind a policy of 'maximum pressure.'"
This is not the first time the president has publicly reprimanded Tillerson for expressing a desire to pursue a diplomatic approach to North Korea and the nation's ongoing efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal. In early October, Trump tweeted: "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"
This latest standoff between the White House and Trump's top diplomat comes amid mounting concerns about armed conflict between the United States and North Korea.
Writing for Foreign Policy in Focus this week, John Feffer notes that despite Trump's aggressive foreign policy toward Afghanistan, Palestine, Yemen, and Iran, "no war has acquired quite the same apparent inevitability as the conflict with North Korea."
In Washington, added Feffer, "pundits and policymakers are talking about a 'three-month window' within which the Trump administration can stop North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons," pointing to an estimate that reportedly comes from the CIA. "This aura of inevitability should put prevention of conflict with North Korea at the top of the urgent to-do list of all international institutions, engaged diplomats, and concerned citizens."
"A warning about the costs of war may not convince people who want Kim Jong Un and his regime out regardless of consequences," Feffer acknowledges, "but a preliminary estimate of the human, economic, and environmental costs of a war should make enough people think twice, lobby hard against military actions by all sides, and support legislative efforts to prevent Trump from launching a preemptive strike without congressional approval."