Interview With Elise Labott of CNN
Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
January 5, 2018
QUESTION: Let’s start with North Korea. There was big news last night about the North and South arranging talks for next week, North Korea now coming to the table. Is that an opening maybe for talks with the U.S. or nuclear talks?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think it’s too early to tell. We need to wait and see what the outcome of their talks are. President Trump had a good call with President Moon yesterday morning, which I participated in, and their intent is to talk about the Olympics – obviously, a very important upcoming event for South Korea – and the potential participation of North Korea in those Olympics. So our understanding is that’s the content of the meeting. So I think it’s a little early to draw any conclusions.
QUESTION: But it could be a positive sign maybe that North Korea wants to engage a little bit.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see. Perhaps. I know some are speculating that this may be their first effort to open a channel. But as you know, we’ve had channels open to North Korea for some time, and so they do know how to reach us when – if and when they’re ready to engage with us as well.
QUESTION: Well, maybe you’ll be next.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We’ll see.
QUESTION: If you could explain a little bit about what the U.S. policy is on North Korea, because I think Americans are a little bit confused. Do the North Koreans have to give up their nuclear program before committing to talks?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Our policy is the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization … of the Korean Peninsula. That is a policy that is commonly held by everyone in the region as well… The Chinese have that as a stated policy. Russia has it as a stated policy. So regionally, all of the countries in the neighboring area, as well as the international community, are well aligned on the policy. How we achieve the ultimate endpoint, the final fully – full denuclearization, the verification of that, and the irreversibility of it, clearly that’s going to take some time. So how we begin the talks is yet to be determined, but we clearly need a signal from North Korea that they understand these talks must lead to that conclusion. The pathway of how you get there, that is the nature of the negotiation. There’ll be some give and take to achieve those objectives… That objective has never changed.
QUESTION: Because as you said, it’s unrealistic for them to kind of sit down and say, “We’re ready to do it,” but it sounds like they’d have to show some willingness, but then the mechanics of that are able to be worked out.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We have to have the shared view that that is the reason we’re talking, that’s the purpose of these talks, and it is through those talks that North Korea actually can chart the way for themselves of a more secure future, a more prosperous future for their people as well. So there are very positive outcomes to these talks for North Korea, as there will be positive outcomes for the security of the entire region. That is the nature of the negotiations.
QUESTION: Do you think – a lot has been made about the President’s tweet on the nuclear button, but now North Korea is talking with South Korea. Do you think that tough rhetoric has worked here?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think the rhetoric that North Korea understands is while it is our objective – and the President has been very clear – to achieve a denuclearization through diplomatic efforts, those diplomatic efforts are backed by a strong military option if necessary. That is not the first choice, and the President has been clear that’s not his first choice. But it is important that North Korea, as well as other regional players, understand how high the stakes are in an effort to ensure our diplomatic efforts are fully supported. And I think to date, the diplomatic efforts have been supported very well in the international community. If you look at the three UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions, the participation in those sanctions and a number of countries going well beyond the Security Council resolutions and imposing unilateral actions on their own, both economic as well as diplomatic, I think it is a recognition that the President has demonstrated to the world how high the stakes are. That’s why we must achieve a diplomatic outcome.
But the North Koreans have to understand that, and they have to understand that the penalties to them will continue and will only grow more severe in terms of sanctions actions and other actions until they do get on a pathway to achieve that objective that the entire world hopes to achieve.
QUESTION: So it sounds like this kind of good cop, bad cop, if you will – hold out the prospect of talks but if talks don’t work, military action – that might be the formula that you and the President will continue.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’m going to let you characterize it that way. I’m not going to necessarily show all of our cards.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We had a very productive 2017. And the 11 months I was here was an extraordinarily challenging period, because when the President came into office we had so many policies that the President ran on in his campaign and made clear to the American people he intends to pivot those policies in a different direction. It takes a lot of effort to do that in that first year so that your partners, your allies, and your adversaries understand you’ve moved.
We had a very successful, in my view, year of 2017 pivoting our policies and helping our partners understand those policies. We’re now into the implementation and execution against those policies. I think we’re going to have a very productive 2018. Again, the State Department gets stronger every day understanding what we’re trying to do, and I look forward to having a very, very successful 2018.
QUESTION: For the whole year?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I intend to be here for the whole year.