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US secretary of state has drawn a distinction between 'talks' with North Korea and 'negotiations'

A TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US president Donald Trump, left, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea Picture by Ahn Young-joon/PA
By Josh Lederman

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has drawn a distinction between "talks" with North Korea and "negotiations", arguing US president Donald Trump's willingness to chat with Kim Jong Un should not be construed as anything more than that.

The stunning announcement that Mr Trump had agreed to a meeting with the North Korean leader raised questions about what had changed after months of Mr Tillerson and other Trump officials insisting the conditions were not right for negotiations with Pyongyang.

Mr Tillerson said Mr Trump has been open to mere talks and a meeting with Mr Kim "for some time", and had decided "the time was right".

"In the president's judgment, that time has arrived now," Mr Tillerson told reporters in Djibouti during a trip to Africa.

Mr Tillerson did not define the precise difference between talks and negotiations, and it was unclear what there was for the two countries, still technically at war, would have to discuss if not a deal to address concerns about the North's nuclear weapons programme.

Ostensibly, they could hold preliminary conversations to see if there's enough common ground and good will to proceed to formal negotiations.

Explaining Mr Trump's decision-making about the meeting, Mr Tillerson said that the US had witnessed a shift from North Korea that became apparent when a South Korean delegation visited Pyongyang, then travelled to Washington to brief US officials on the rare meeting.

He said the dispatch from that meeting "was the most forward-leaning report that we've had, in terms of Kim Jong Un's not just willingness but his strong desire for talks.

"What changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way," Mr Tillerson said.

"In all honesty, that came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well."

As Mr Trump's administration ramped up its "maximum pressure campaign" on North Korea over the last year, Mr Tillerson was one of the more enthusiastic advocates within the cabinet for trying to talk to the North Koreans, even as other officials warned Trump of the risks of rewarding Kim too soon.

For months the administration gave mixed messages about just what "preconditions", if any, needed to be met to merit talks.

Ultimately, Mr Trump decided Mr Kim's willingness to discuss denuclearisation and commit to halt testing was enough.

Mr Tillerson said the decision to agree to the meeting was "a decision the president took himself".

"This is something he's had on his mind for quite some time," Mr Tillerson said.

"So now I think it's a question of agreeing on the timing of that first meeting between the two of them and a location and that will take some weeks before we get all that worked out."

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