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Tillerson Travels To U.N. To Discuss Issues Involving North Korea


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is taking part today in a high-level meeting at the U.N. He's going to be talking about how to deal with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. He spent much of this year trying to rally countries to cut off trade to pressure Pyongyang to negotiate. And now he is trying something new - offering to talk. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the diplomatic record to date.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Former defense secretary William Perry says the U.S. should never have let North Korea get to this point.


WILLIAM PERRY: We're now looking today at a nuclear arsenal of about 20 to 25 nuclear weapons and building. They're building, I think, at a pretty fast rate now.

KELEMEN: Speaking to the Arms Control Association recently, Perry, who served in the Clinton administration, described how past deals fell apart. And he said he believes the U.S. missed several opportunities to at least slow down North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The last time there were any negotiations, they involved regional partners in the so-called six-party talks. And North Korea, he said, continued to build nuclear bombs.


PERRY: Now they have a nuclear arsenal, and they're very happy with it. I can't quite imagine what it is we're going to offer them to encourage them to simply give it up.

KELEMEN: On that particular point, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to agree.


REX TILLERSON: It's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it. And the president is very realistic about that, as well.

KELEMEN: The White House and the State Department say that U.S. policy on this hasn't changed. But Tillerson is offering something new. He wants to sit down with North Korea and talk.


TILLERSON: You need to tell us you want to talk. The door's open. But we'll show up when you tell us you're ready to talk.

KELEMEN: Tillerson continues to say the eventual goal is a denuclearized Korean peninsula. He says he doesn't think a policy of containment will work with Pyongyang. Former Defense Secretary Perry, though, says while North Korea may be reckless, it's not suicidal. His main fear is that North Korea could misread the signals if the two sides aren't talking.


PERRY: This nuclear arsenal is very, very dangerous. It's all too easy to imagine scenarios in which they blunder into a nuclear war. They're a reckless country. They have a history of taking very dangerous provocations, particularly with South Korea.

KELEMEN: That is also one of the big concerns for Jeffrey Feltman. He's a top U.N. official just back from a rare trip to Pyongyang.


JEFFREY FELTMAN: I stress the urgent need to prevent miscalculation and reduce the risk of conflict. We have no time to waste.

KELEMEN: Feltman, who is a career U.S. Foreign Service officer before going to the U.N., says he spent more than 15 hours in talks with North Korean officials trying to open the door to diplomacy.


FELTMAN: In my professional career, this was certainly the most important mission I've ever undertaken. And I felt the sense of responsibility on my shoulders throughout the time that I was there.

KELEMEN: Speaking to U.N. reporters earlier this week, he said the North Koreans listened carefully but gave no promises. Feltman said it helps that the Security Council has been united on this, imposing tough sanctions but also spelling out the need for a political solution. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.