US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says President Donald Trump wants him to continue diplomatic efforts with North Korea,”until the first bomb drops”.
Mr Tillerson’s assertion late Sunday night comes as Pyongyang made an explicit threat to Australia over the weekend.
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Mr Tillerson downplayed messages that Mr Trump had previously posted on Twitter suggesting his chief diplomat was wasting his time trying to negotiate with “Little Rocket Man”, a derogatory nickname the president has coined for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Mr Trump “has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts”, Mr Tillerson said.
The secretary of state’s comments come after North Korea threatened Australia with “a disaster” for aligning itself with South Korea and the United States and for its tough attitude toward the Pyongyang regime, according to state-run media.
“Should Australia continue to follow the US in imposing military, economic and diplomatic pressure upon the DPRK despite our repeated warnings, they will not be able to avoid a disaster,” state news agency KCNA warned Saturday.
Tensions between the US and North Korea have soared following a series of weapons tests by Pyongyang and a war of words between the two countries’ leaders.
North Korea has conducted a series of nuclear tests in recent weeks and launched two missiles over Japan.
Mr Tillerson has been in talks with China to enlist its help on getting North Korea to back down. But the President’s recent Twitter messages appeared to undercut Mr Tillerson’s efforts.
Senate foreign relations committee chairman Bob Corker complained that Mr Trump was publicly castrating Mr Tillerson and hurting diplomatic talks.
Mr Tillerson downplayed those tweets on Sunday, telling CNN that Mr Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping have an extremely close relationship and that China understands the US position.
“Rest assured that the Chinese are not confused in any way” about the American policy towards North Korea, he added.
China’s ruling Communist Party will hold a four-day, once-in-five-years Congress starting Wednesday.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she expects Korea to make another statement while China is in the global spotlight.
“In the past, it has been noted that North Korea seems to deliberately set out to embarrass China and has launched missile tests, or carried out illegal nuclear weapons tests, at a time when China is showcasing the nation on the world stage,” she said.
North Korea has previously fired off missiles coinciding with other key world events.
“There may be another provocative act by North Korea around the time of the 19th Party Congress – we hope not – but this seems to have been a pattern of behaviour.”