The statement by Tillerson at an 2017 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum meeting in Washington would seem to represent a change of approach for the US, which had demanded that Pyongyang halt its nuclear program before any negotiations could occur.
"We are ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk. And we are ready to have a first meeting without preconditions. Let's just meet," Tillerson said on Tuesday. "And then we can begin lay out a road map of what we might be willing to work towards."
"We need DPRK [North Korea] to come to the table for talks. We are ready to talk any time they'd like to talk," he said. "But they have to come to the table with the view that they do want to make a different choice. Let's just meet and let's talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it's going to be a square table or a round table."
"Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards," the Secretary of State said, suggesting that initial contacts could revolve around establishing ground rules for any formal negotiations.
'Without preconditions' shouldn't be taken as carte blanche, however, Tillerson noted. "It's going to be tough to talk if in the middle of our talks you decide to test another device. I think they clearly understand that if we are going to talk, we have to have a period of quiet," he said.
North Korea has conducted 23 missile tests since February and tested a nuclear device in September.
But Tillerson is, apparently, espousing a less demanding position. In August, he told reporters, "We don't think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they're going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive."
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism regarding negotiating with North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang haven't sat down for formal negotiations since 2009.
White House Spokesperson Sarah Sanders said in a statement on Tuesday that Trump has not changed his position on North Korea which is acting in an unsafe manner towards the region and the world.
"The President's views on North Korea have not changed. North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world," Sanders said. "North Korea's actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea."
At the Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum, Tillerson also revealed that the US and China have discussed how they would secure nuclear weapons in North Korea if the country suffered some kind of "instability."
"We also have had conversations about in the event that something happened, could happen internal to North Korea — might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they've already developed," he commented. "We've had conversations with the Chinese about how that might be done."
Last week, a Cathay Pacific flight crew announced that they saw North Korea's latest missile test last Wednesday as they were flying over Japan.
On Tuesday, armed forces from the US, Japan and South Korea combined to conduct an air power drill intended to assess their combat capabilities.
The operation took place in the East China Sea and consisted of Japanese F-15 fighters participating in joint exercises with US B1-B bombers, F-35 joint strike fighters and F-18 multirole jets, Reuters reported.
"The drill was meant to bolster joint operations and raise combat skills," Japan's Air Self Defense Force said in a statement.
The trilateral air drill is one of the largest in a series of drills to pressure North Korea to denuclearize and comes after a two-day exercise where the same nations launched missile-detecting operations.