"We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk," Tillerson told Washington's Atlantic Council think tank on Tuesday. "We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition."
The remarks, which followed North Korea's sixth nuclear test and two successful launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles this year, appeared to back away from a longstanding U.S. demand that Pyongyang must first accept that any talks would have to be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.
"We can talk about the weather if you want," Tillerson said.
"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? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards. I don't think -- it's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program."
Later in remarks to State Department staff reported by Reuters, Tillerson said: "We want them to make the right choice, which is to stop and say: 'Let's sit down to talk about it.
"Because if they keep going, they can cross a point at which there's nothing left for us in the diplomatic community to do," he added.
Less than 24 hours later, however, a senior White House official was quoted by Reuters as saying no negotiations can be held with North?Korea?until it improves its behavior, citing Nov. 29 test launch of the Hwasong-15, intercontinental ballistic missile said by analysts to be capable of reaching all of the mainland United States.
"Given North?Korea's most recent missile test, clearly right now is not the time (for negotiations)," the White House National Security Council spokesman told Reuters.
"The administration is united in insisting that any negotiations with North?Korea?must wait until the regime fundamentally improves its behavior," Reuters quoted a second official, who declined to be named.
Echoing the White House, a State Department spokesman said Washington was willing to hold talks only "when the time is right."
In South Korea, which will host the Winter Olympics in the resort area of Pyeongchang from February 9-25, Tillerson's remarks appeared to be welcome after months in which North?Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have traded insults and heated rhetoric.
"The U.S. may have considered the fact that North Korea cannot drive things intensively as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is right around the corner where people from all over the world are participating," said Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University.
"It may seem discordant because Trump talks about a stricter stance and Tillerson talks about having talks," he told RFA's Korean Service. "On the other hand, we can see it as a mixture of strict and moderate strategy."
Park Young-Ho of Kangwon National University told RFA "Talks do not mean that there is a change in the basis of (U.S.) policy."
"For the U.S., it can be a type of a 'gesture.' In that context, it may mean 'let's hear what you have to say,'" said Park.
"It is to check what kind of response North Korea would give from Tillerson's offer."
Reported by RFA's Korean Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
Copyright 1998-2014, RFA. Published with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036