Trump administration officials have shifted their tactical approach to North Korea after internal deliberations in recent weeks, senior officials said, closing ranks with Seoul and signaling a readiness to hold preliminary talks with Pyongyang.
The new emphasis on what some experts call “talks about talks” is a change from last year, when the U.S. insisted North Korea commit itself to denuclearization before negotiations could commence.
On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave one of the clearest indications yet of the evolution in U.S. thinking.
“We really need to have some discussions that precede any formal negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something meaningful,” Mr. Tillerson said during a visit to Cairo.
His comment followed a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to the Winter Olympics in South Korea during which Mr. Pence met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying later that the two were in agreement on the approach to North Korea. A senior official said Mr. Pence made clear to Mr. Moon that if he met with the North Koreans, Mr. Pence’s private message about denuclearization would mirror his public message.
None of this means that the White House has dropped its campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, officials emphasized.
The U.S. is still pushing to strengthen international sanctions while keeping its military options open until Pyongyang engages in serious negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula while refraining from nuclear and missile tests, they said.
Nor is there any indication that Pyongyang is prepared to open either informal or formal talks with the U.S.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a summit is deepening divisions in Seoul between those who see Pyongyang’s overtures to the South at the Games as a ruse and those who regard accepting its invitation for high-level talks as the only way to sustain a reduction in tensions.
The Trump administration’s diplomatic strategy regarding North Korea has changed in several steps.
In early October, President Donald Trump cast doubt on the State Department’s efforts.
A day after Mr. Tillerson said in Beijing that American officials were trying to gauge if North Korea wanted to talk, Mr. Trump wrote in a tweet that the secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
“Save your energy Rex,” Mr. Trump wrote, adding, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
The White House also appeared to undercut Mr. Tillerson two months later, when the secretary of state told an event at the Atlantic Council that American officials were willing to meet with North Korean representatives “without preconditions.”
“Let’s just meet. And we can talk about the weather if you want,” Mr. Tillerson said at the time. “We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face.”
That night, the White House issued a statement that asserted that “the president’s views on North Korea have not changed.”
Confronted by the White House statement, Mr. Tillerson appeared to walk back his own position three days later, telling the United Nations Security Council that “a sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin” and that “North Korea must earn its way back to the table.”
That was before Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, suggested in a New Year’s address that his nation’s athletes might participate in the Winter Olympics and before South Korea responded the next day with a proposal for inter-Korean talks on that matter.
The South made that offer without consulting with the Trump administration, underscoring the challenges the U.S. and South Korea face in maintaining a united front.
The question of how best to manage relations with Seoul were front and center when Mr. Pence prepared for his recent trip to the Games in Pyeongchang. Messrs. Pence and Tillerson met with Mr. Trump before the vice president left for Asia. Messrs. Pence and Tillerson also spoke at least twice when the secretary of state was traveling in South America.
What followed was another step in the administration’s diplomatic approach.
Some U.S. officials said the administration was mindful that shunning all contact with the North might add to strain with the Moon government, upset public opinion in South Korea and play into the hands of Pyongyang, which has portrayed Washington as focused on a military solution.
Before Mr. Pence led a U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, administration officials indicated that the vice president was potentially open to high-level contacts at the Games, if an outreach was made and the conditions were right.
The idea was that if any meeting occurred, it wouldn’t be held in front of television cameras and the vice president would use the opportunity to deliver a firm message that a pressure campaign would continue until the North agreed to negotiate about denuclearization.
South Korea and North Korea took part in an opening procession at the Games together and fielded a unified women’s ice hockey team.
Mr. Kim’s sister attended the Games, met with Mr. Moon and delivered an invitation for a North-South meeting in Pyongyang.
While the glow of a successful start to the Olympics appears to have buoyed the South Korean president, a strain of skepticism endures in his country.
After meeting with Mr. Moon, Mr. Pence insisted the two countries were like-minded and that while there may be preliminary talks with North Korea, neither side would relax pressure on Pyongyang until the country’s leadership indicated it was prepared to give up its nuclear weapons. But there were no high-level contacts between Mr. Pence and any North Korean representatives.
Still, Mr. Tillerson is keeping the door ajar.
“We’ve said for some time it’s really up to the North Koreans to decide when they’re ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way,” he said during his Cairo visit. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com