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 news 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. After 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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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.
Tillerson will still be in Africa when the South Koreans brief the U.S. in more detail about their conversations with the North Koreans 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 news 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.
Tillerson 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 that 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.
Abigail Williams reported from Addis Ababa, and Francis Whittaker from London.