The White House says it is only interested in talking to North Korea if it is about the release of three Americans held by Pyongyang.
The statement comes a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that the U.S. still has direct channels of communication with North Korean authorities and American officials are seeking a dialogue.
But hours later, Tillerson’s remarks were undercut by President Donald Trump who said Tillerson is “wasting his time” speaking with Pyongyang.
Despite Trump’s remarks, the White House said Monday that the president still has confidence in Tillerson.
Asked at the daily briefing about Tillerson’s remarks, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “now is not the time to talk.”
“The only conversations that have taken place, or that would, would be on bringing back Americans who have been detained like that with Otto (Warmbier, the late U.S. student), those were the type of conversations that this administration was willing to have. Beyond that, there will be no conversations with North Korea at this time.”
That message appeared to conflict with Tillerson’s description to reporters following weekend meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing. At the time he said “we’re probing, so stay tuned.”
The apparent mixed messages left some veteran American diplomats stunned.
“It’s a terrible way to conduct diplomacy,” a former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Evans Revere, told VOA. “It raises questions certainly on their part about U.S. seriousness but we’re also seeing reactions from the international community that it’s raised questions among U.S. partners around the world.”
A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, said chastising Tillerson is not a way for the president “to signal his administration has a carefully thought-out, coherent policy.”
Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, was more blunt in a tweet: “Undercutting your Secretary of State publicly is a cardinal sin of Diplomacy. Unpresidential.”
But Tillerson’s Senior Advisor for Public Affairs R.C. Hammond told State Department reporters that the president’s tweets was directed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and not at Tillerson. Hammond told VOA Tillerson saw the president’s tweets very differently.
“He did not see it as an insult, he saw it as a demonstration of skepticism.”
Hammond agreed with White House Press Secretary Sanders that the channels of direct communication between the U.S. and North Korea, including the one in New York, are for humanitarian purposes to try to win the release of the three Americans still detained.
He said President Trump is familiar with those channels.
Nike Ching, Steve Herman contributed to this report.