Rex Tillerson tries to reopen diplomatic dialogue

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is in direct communication with North Korea and is “probing” the isolated nation through three channels in the hopes of convincing its erratic leader to enter into talks over its controversial nuclear program.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ ” Tillerson told reporters during a visit to China.

“We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation or a blackout,” he said. “We have a couple of direct channels to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them. Directly, through our own channels. … We are probing, so stay tuned.”

The communications channels with North Korea show the U.S. is engaging with the nation beyond the heated back-and-forth between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that has escalated the situation.

Tillerson said he’d like a change in tone.

“I think the whole situation is a bit overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down,” Tillerson said. “Obviously, it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot.”

No elaboration about those channels or the substance of any discussions came from Tillerson, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials in Beijing. The direct communications were first set up to seek the freedom of several American citizens imprisoned in North Korea, although U.S. officials have said those talks have included broader discussions on U.S. and North Korea relations.

In recent months, North Korea has tested long-range missiles that could potentially reach the U.S., and on Sept. 3 conducted its largest ever nuclear test explosion. The standoff has entered a new, more dangerous phase since then as Kim and Trump have exchanged personal insults and threats of war.

Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens said the lines of communication and efforts at dialogue are a “welcome step.”

“I’d welcome an effort at dialogue,” Stephens told the Herald. “I think it’s important, if nothing else, to minimize any misunderstanding or miscalculation about intent on all sides and find a basis event for a diplomatic process.”

Stephens added: “There has been this ratcheting up of threats and name calling over the past few weeks. Even though it’s been words not action, it certainly raises tensions and increases the chance of unintended escalation.”

But State Department spokeswoman…

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