Beijing (AFP) – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Thursday that peace efforts with North Korea could still fall apart and insisted that sanctions must be maintained on Pyongyang until it dismantles its nuclear arsenal.
Pompeo made the remarks during a regional tour to brief South Korean, Japanese and Chinese officials about President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
The Trump administration has drawn criticism over the vague wording of a summit statement regarding denuclearisation and concerns among allies about the US president’s decision to stop war games.
Washington remained committed to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearisation of North Korea, Pompeo said in Seoul after talks with the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.
“We believe that Kim Jong Un understands the urgency… that we must do this quickly,” he said of the effort to have North Korea abandon its atomic arsenal.
In Beijing, Pompeo said China “reaffirmed its commitment” to United Nations sanctions after the foreign ministry suggested earlier this week that the UN Security Council could consider easing the economic punishment against its Cold War-era ally.
“We truly believe that we have a path forward after so many years that can bring peace,” Pompeo told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, before he met with President Xi Jinping.
But, he warned, “there are still risks that we won’t achieve” that goal and more work needs to be done.
Any reduction in tensions on its doorstep is welcome for China, North Korea’s closest ally, which accounts for around 90 percent of Pyongyang’s trade.
Pompeo, speaking alongside Wang, said the UN resolutions have mechanisms for sanctions relief “and we agreed that at the appropriate time that those would be considered.”
But, he added, “we have made very clear that the sanctions and the economic relief that North Korea will receive will only happen after the full denuclearisation, the complete denuclearisation of North Korea.”
For his part, Wang said China has a “firm commitment” to denuclearisation but that North Korea’s “legitimate” concerns must be addressed.
Wang said the denuclearisation process would be worked out “through more detailed and specific consultations going forward” and “China stands ready to play a constructive role in that process”.
Earlier, Pompeo insisted at a joint press conference with the South Korea and Japanese foreign ministers that there was no daylight among the allies on how to achieve denuclearisation and sanctions would remain in place.
Pompeo’s comments came after North Korean state media reported Wednesday that Trump had not only offered to stop military exercises during dialogue, but also lift sanctions imposed on Pyongyang, causing concern in Tokyo and Seoul.
Trump said after his meeting with Kim — the first between sitting US and North Korean leaders — that Washington would halt its joint military exercises with South Korea, an announcement that caught Seoul, and apparently the Pentagon, by surprise.
The US and South Korea conduct several large drills every year to maintain readiness for operations on the peninsula, a source of anger for Pyongyang, which considers them preparations for an invasion.
– ‘Frank’ discussions –
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha appeared to sidestep the issue at the joint press conference, saying the matter would be left to military authorities to discuss, and that the US-South Korea alliance remained “as robust as ever”.
Earlier, South Korean President Moon Jae-in acknowledged that “there may be very conflicting views” about the summit, but it had still helped mitigate fears of a nuclear war.
“In this way I believe it was very successful.”
He later said Seoul would carefully consider the future of the drills “if North Korea faithfully implements denuclearisation measures and sincere dialogue continues”, according to his office.
While it is not directly involved, Japan also considers the exercises vital.
The “deterrence based on them (plays) an essential role for security in northeast Asia”, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said after the “frank” trilateral talks.
Kono said Japan understood the pause in the drills to be contingent on North Korean steps towards denuclearisation, adding that “no security guarantees have been given yet”.
Pompeo said the suspension of the exercises depended on productive negotiations in “good faith”.
Trump had raised eyebrows Tuesday by describing his own country’s drills on the Korean peninsula as “provocative”, a term used by the North for the exercises.
Pyongyang describes its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as a shield against US aggression, and has in the past linked denuclearisation to the removal of US forces from the peninsula.
North Korea’s propaganda machine embraced the summit, with state television airing footage Thursday, describing Kim as a “prominent world leader” who is universally revered.
– ‘Sleep well tonight!’ –
Despite some concerns among allies and analysts, the Trump administration continues to tout the summit as a success, and Pompeo said earlier that he hopes to see “major disarmament” of North Korea by 2020.
A bullish Trump declared the nuclear threat from North Korea no longer exists, and tweeted Wednesday that people “can now feel much safer than the day I took office” and can “sleep well tonight!”
The president’s latest comments are in stark contrast to his threats to unleash “fire and fury” last year in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile tests. The North retaliated by boasting it could annihilate the United States.
In the latest step to ease cross-border friction, the two Koreas held their highest-level military talks in over a decade on Thursday in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries.