By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Monday ruled out talks with North Korea except to discuss the fate of Americans held there, again appearing to rebuke Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who said Washington was directly communicating with Pyongyang on its nuclear and missile programs.
"We've been clear that now is not the time to talk," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters, reiterating a tweet from President Donald Trump at the weekend that was seen as undercutting Tillerson.
"The only conversations that have taken place were that ... would be on bringing back Americans who have been detained," Sanders said. "Beyond that, there will be no conversations with North Korea at this time."
Tillerson said on Saturday during a trip to China that the United States was directly communicating with North Korea on its nuclear and missile programs but that Pyongyang had shown no interest in dialogue.
Trump, who has traded insults and threats with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent weeks, later dismissed any prospect of talks with North Korea as a waste of time.
"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Trump wrote on Twitter, using his sarcastic nickname for Kim.
"Save your energy, Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" Trump wrote.
It was not the first time the White House and State Department have seemed at odds on policy issues, but when asked if Trump still had confidence in Tillerson as secretary of state, Sanders said: “He does.”
A senior administration official said Tillerson misspoke.
“I think it was just him misspeaking. He was just acknowledging the fact that we do have channels and we might have reason to talk if North Korea’s behavior changes sometime down the road,” the official said.
DIALOGUE WITH NORTH?
Tillerson said in Beijing that the United States had multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang and that it was probing North Korea to see if it was interested in dialogue.
The top U.S. diplomat expressed hope for reducing tensions with North Korea, which is fast advancing toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
"We are probing, so stay tuned," Tillerson told a small group of reporters. "We ask: 'Would you like to talk?'" He said the United States had "a couple of, three, channels, open to Pyongyang."
Another U.S. official said Tillerson may have overstated the status of U.S. lines of communication with North Korea for the benefit of his Chinese hosts, who have been pushing the Trump administration to do more to lure Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
Trump has vowed to halt North Korea's nuclear ambitions and tensions have escalated in recent months, with Pyongyang conducting its sixth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 3. It has also threatened to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.
The fate of Americans held in North Korea is also a bone of contention. The Trump administration has demanded North Korea release three U.S. citizens it has detained: missionary Kim Dong Chul and academics Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song.
The Trump White House and State Department have taken to divergent stances on other foreign policy issues.
When a dispute over Qatar erupted this year, Trump strongly backed Gulf Arab leaders who accuse Qatar of supporting Iran as well as Islamist militants. Trump accused Qatar of being a "high-level" funder of terrorism even as the Pentagon and Tillerson cautioned against the military, commercial and humanitarian effects of a boycott imposed by Arab states.
Months into the dispute, Trump adopted a position more in line with that of the State Department.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Additional reporting by David Alexander and Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by James Dalgleish)