12 Feb Tillerson: ‘Too Early’ to Assess Latest North-South Korea Overtures
CAIRO—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “it’s too early to judge” whether new overtures involving North and South Korea could lead to a serious diplomatic process regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
“We’ve said for some time it’s really up to the North Koreans to decide when they’re ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way,” Mr. Tillerson said Monday, speaking alongside Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during a trip to Cairo. “We really need to have some discussions that precede any formal negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something meaningful.”
Mr. Tillerson’s comments followed a weekend in which the start of the Winter Olympics in South Korea gave rise to series of moves to ease tensions by both Seoul and Pyongyang. The two countries entered the Games together and fielded a unified women’s ice hockey team. The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended the Games, met with South Korea’s leader and delivered an invitation for a North-South meeting in Pyongyang.
Vice President Mike Pence, leading a U.S. delegation to the Olympics, met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying afterward that the two were in agreement on the approach to North Korea—that while there may be preliminary talks, neither side would relax pressure on Pyongyang until the country’s leaders moved to abandon their nuclear weapons.
Mr. Tillerson and others have said previously the U.S. would be willing to hold talks with the North on nonsubstantive issues, but that serious negotiations would require a commitment by North Korea to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Mr. Pence echoed that stance, drawing a distinction between talks and negotiations, in an interview with the Washington Post on a flight out of Seoul.
Mr. Pence also said a U.S.-led effort to pressure North Korea over its nuclear program would continue as the parties eye possible discussions.
Still, Mr. Tillerson on Monday said “we’ll have to wait and see” if recent developments portend anything substantive.
Mr. Moon, in response to an offer from Kim Jong Un to visit Pyongyang transmitted over the weekend via his sister Kim Yo Jong, said he hoped to “create the environment” for such a summit to take place, according to spokesman for South Korea’s president.
Mr. Moon also urged the North’s representatives to “actively pursue” talks with the U.S., describing them as necessary for an improvement in inter-Korean relations.
Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Egypt comes amid a crackdown by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ahead of elections in March. Every credible challenger to Mr. Sisi has been arrested, detained or has withdrawn from the race.
During the joint news conference with Mr. Shoukry ahead of a meeting with Mr. Sisi, Mr. Tillerson didn’t directly respond to a question about whether Egypt’s coming election will be fair and credible given efforts to remove challengers from the race.
“We have always advocated free, transparent, fair elections, not just in Egypt but in any country,” Mr. Tillerson said. He added that the U.S. advocates for citizens making their own choices and said, “Nothing has changed about our advocacy.”
The Trump administration in August cut $95.7 million in military and economic aid to Egypt and put another $195 million in military assistance on hold because of unhappiness over Egypt’s human-rights situation. The decision was also part of an effort to pressure Cairo on its ties with North Korea.
Mr. Shoukry on Monday said there are “almost no existing” ties between Egypt and North Korea, economic or otherwise, and said that Egypt is concerned about nuclear proliferation.
Later Monday, Mr. Tillerson travels to Kuwait for meetings on the fight against Islamic State and on reconstruction in Iraq. The Export-Import Bank of the U.S. is expected on Tuesday to sign an agreement with the Iraqi government to facilitate the financing of American goods and services exported to Iraq, administration officials said.
The officials declined to specify the amount, but it is expected to be in the neighborhood of $2 billion to $3 billion.
—Jared Malsin in Cairo and Jonathan Cheng in Gangneung, South Korea, contributed to this article.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com