US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says North Korea will receive sanctions relief only after it has taken “irreversible” steps to abandon its nuclear program, a demand that Washington has made previously and alternatively as a condition for a possible meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Mattis made the comment on the sidelines of a security conference in Singapore on Sunday, stressing that it was vital for the international community to uphold the United Nations-imposed sanctions regime against North Korea until the country ended its nuclear activities.
“We will continue to implement all UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization,” Mattis said before a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.
Trump and Kim have been supposed to meet in a summit in Singapore on June 12. Trump announced the date and venue of the summit himself, but then canceled the meeting before effectively retracting that cancellation.
The White House has demanded that North Korea denuclearize, but different American officials have offered different versions of that demand. Some have said denuclearization — which the US has also said must happen at one stage — is a pre-condition for the summit; others, like Mattis, have linked it not to the summit but to the prospect of sanctions relief and the normalization of ties with North Korea.
Once asked whether denuclearization was a pre-condition for the summit, Trump merely nodded yes.
Mattis has in the past differed with his boss on matters of policy, and it was not clear whether he was speaking for the White House on Sunday.
Pyongyang has rejected the demand of denuclearizing at one stage, and has offered only a “phased” approach to denuclearization.
In his Sunday remarks, Mattis said the road to the summit had been paved with difficulties.
“We can anticipate at best a bumpy road [to the negotiations],” he said. “As defense ministers, we must maintain a strong collaborative defensive stance so we enable our diplomats to negotiate from a calm position of strength in this critical time.”
Meanwhile, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met the North Korean leader’s envoy, General Kim Yong-chol, in the US on Friday to discuss preparations for the upcoming summit.
After the meeting, Trump said he expected a “very positive result” with North Korea, and Pompeo expressed confidence that the process was moving in the right direction. The US secretary of state urged the North Korean leader to be bold enough to make a “strategic shift” and give up nuclear weapons. He did not set a timetable for such disarmament, though.
The original summit announcement came after several months of unprecedented cordial diplomacy between South and North Koreas, which had been adversaries for decades. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been acting as a go-between in diplomatic efforts for the potential holding of the summit between the US and North Korea — also long-time foes.
As acknowledged by Mattis on Sunday, the likelihood that the meeting would succeed — or happen at all — is not strong, despite the ongoing diplomacy. Trump has offended the North Koreans by threatening Kim with the same fate as Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi if Pyongyang does not make a deal with the US. The demand for abrupt denuclearization is another stumbling block.