A United Nations official who paid a visit to North Korea last week revealed that officials in the isolated state wanted to “prevent war” over their country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Jeffrey Feltman told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council privately that "how we do that" was the topic of more than 15 hours of discussions he had with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk, and other officials.
Feltman, a veteran American diplomat who is the UN undersecretary general for political affairs, said he told the North Koreans "they need to signal that they're willing now to go in a different direction, to start some kind of engagement, to start talking about talks."
He said he stressed "the urgent need to prevent miscalculation and reduce the risk of conflict," while he also underlined both the international community's commitment to a peaceful solution and its opposition to North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
He said he emphasized the importance of opening channels of communications "such as the military-to-military hotline to reduce risks, to signal intentions, to prevent misunderstandings and manage any crisis."
It was the first in-depth exchange of views between the UN and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official name, in almost eight years.
Feltman called the mission the most important one that he has ever undertaken and called it "constructive and productive."
He said he believes he conveyed the concerns of Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the Security Council and the international community, but he was cautious about the impact.
"They listened seriously to our arguments ... they argued with us," Feltman said. "They did not offer any type of commitment to us at that point. They have to reflect on what we said with their own leadership."
"I think we've left the door ajar, and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide," he added.
Feltman said both sides agreed the situation on the Korean Peninsula is "the most tense and dangerous peace and security issue in the world today." He said they also agreed that his visit "was only a beginning and that we should continue our dialogue."
He said the UN and others are prepared to facilitate any new opening for talks.
Feltman's visit came at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the United States, sparked by the reclusive country's frequent missile launches and recent nuclear test explosion, and particularly by its latest launch of a long-range ballistic missile that experts say could reach Washington.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump have traded insults and engaged in escalating rhetoric in recent months but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson softened the US stance on possible talks with North Korea on Tuesday.
Tillerson offered to meet the North Koreans without preconditions and said it was "unrealistic" to expect the country to come to the table ready to give up a nuclear weapons program that it invested so much in developing. He said Trump endorsed his stance.
Tillerson is expected to attend a Security Council ministerial meeting Friday at which the secretary general will brief members. Feltman also is scheduled to attend.
No negotiations can be held with North Korea until it improves its behavior, a White House official said on Wednesday, raising questions about Tillerson’s offer to begin talks with Pyongyang anytime and without pre-conditions.
“Given North Korea’s most recent missile test, clearly right now is not the time (for negotiations),” the White House National Security Council spokesman told Reuters.
The White House has declined to say whether Trump gave approval for the diplomatic overture.
The White House official, who declined to be named, said: “The administration is united in insisting that any negotiations with North Korea must wait until the regime fundamentally improves its behavior. As the secretary of state himself has said, this must include, but is not limited to, no further nuclear or missile tests.”
North Korea has made clear it has little interest in negotiations with the United States until it has developed the ability to hit the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, something most experts say it has still not proved.