BEIJING (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged on Saturday that the United State is maintaining direct channels of communications with North Korea even as tensions rise over the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the countries’ leaders spar through bellicose name-calling.

Tillerson said the U.S. was probing North Korea’s willingness to talk, and called for a calming of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, adding it was incumbent on the North to halt the missile launches.
“We have lines of communication to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” Tillerson told reporters during a visit to China. “We have a couple ... three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them, we do talk to them.”

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.

Since President Donald Trump took office in January, the U.S. has restored a diplomatic back-channel between the State Department and North Korea’s mission at the United Nations. That’s traditionally been a way for the two sides to communicate because they lack formal diplomatic ties.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Chinese leaders for discussions on trade and North Korea. He is calling for a calming of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. (Sept. 30)

The main aim of the initial contacts was to seek the freedom of several American citizens imprisoned in North Korea, although U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that there were broader discussions about U.S.-North Korean relations. Those contacts, however, have failed to reduce the deep mistrust between the adversaries and it’s unclear to what extent they have endured the current spike in tensions.

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

“I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down,” Tillerson said. “They’re a little overheated right now. And I think we need to calm them down first.” He did not directly address the impact of Trump’s own rhetoric.