America's top diplomat stepped back Friday from his offer of unconditional talks with North Korea, telling world powers the nuclear-armed nation must earn the right to negotiate with the United States.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's declaration before the U.N. Security Council marked a stunning reversal after he proposed discussions with Pyongyang without preconditions earlier this week. That overture was almost immediately rebutted by White House officials.
Still, Tillerson had planned to reiterate his call at a special U.N. ministerial meeting on North Korea at the council Friday morning. His prepared remarks suggested only that North Korea would have to undertake a sustained halt in its threatening behavior before talks could begin. But Tillerson changed the script.
"North Korea must earn its way back to the table," Tillerson told the foreign ministers. "The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearization is achieved. We will in the meantime keep our channels of communication open."
The debate over offering North Korea unconditional talks reflects the differences within the Trump administration as it runs out of time to prevent North Korea from perfecting a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike the U.S. mainland. President Donald Trump has vowed to prevent such capability, with military action if necessary.
So far, U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea and diplomatic isolation haven't compelled Kim Jong Un's government to stop its nuclear and missile tests, or to seek negotiations.
Seeking to increase the pressure further, Tillerson called on China and Russia, the powers with closest ties to North Korea, to go beyond U.N.-mandated economic sanctions.
Tillerson said that continuing to allow North Korean laborers to toil in "slave-like conditions" for wages used to fund nuclear weapons "calls into question Russia's dedication as a partner for peace."
He said that with crude oil still flowing into North Korean refineries, the U.S. also questions China's commitment to "solving an issue that has serious implications for the security of its own citizens."