In some of the most conciliatory remarks to North Korea made by the Trump administration, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson complimented the government in Pyongyang for going more than two weeks without shooting any missiles or blowing up any nuclear bombs.

“I’m pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint,” Mr. Tillerson said, suggesting that the brief pause in testing may be enough to meet the administration’s preconditions for talks.

“We hope that this is the beginning of the signal we’ve been looking for,” he said, adding that “perhaps we’re seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future of having some dialogue. We need to see more on their part. But I want to acknowledge the steps they’ve taken so far.”

That was the carrot. As for the stick, the Trump administration announced new sanctions against China and Russia on Tuesday as part of its campaign to pressure North Korea to stop its development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

The two moves are part of the Trump administration’s dual-track strategy for taming the nuclear threat from North Korea — ratcheting up economic pressure on the government through sanctions while simultaneously offering a diplomatic pathway to peace.

That second approach has gradually softened in recent months. In his first trip to Seoul, South Korea, in March, Mr. Tillerson appeared to make North Korea’s surrender of nuclear weapons a prerequisite for talks. At that time, he said that negotiations could “only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” and that “only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.”

In recent months, he has suggested that Pyongyang only had to demonstrate that it was serious about a new path before talks could begin, suggesting that a significant pause in the country’s provocative activities would be enough. And three weeks ago, he went out of his way to assure the North’s leaders “the security they seek.”

Then, a little more than two weeks ago, the United Nations Security Council passed its toughest sanctions yet against North Korea. And the next day, Mr. Tillerson met with his counterparts in South Korea and China in an effort to increase pressure on Pyongyang.

The United Nations sanctions were already starting to have an impact curtailing trade in China and infuriating Chinese seafood importers, who had to return goods to North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson’s remarks Tuesday were particularly noteworthy because they were made in a news conference that was otherwise devoted to discussing the Trump administration’s new approach to the war in Afghanistan. Continue reading.