The Trump administration on Thursday defended its overture to North Korea, insisting that it is not leaving Pacific allies vulnerable and that vague language in the 1.5-page agreement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un represents a solid commitment from North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.
Completing a round of diplomatic visits to brief South Korea, Japan and China on the summit outcome, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said sanctions on North Korea will not be lifted until “after the full denuclearization, the complete denuclearization” that he said Kim has agreed to.
The document Kim and Trump signed Tuesday in Singapore does not contain an explicit pledge to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” the standard Pompeo had said would be the only acceptable outcome for U.S. engagement with Pyongyang.
Pompeo has since said it is “silly” to think that the document’s wording, which calls for “complete” denuclearization but includes no deadline, does not meet the test he had set.
“With respect to the pace at which the denuclearization will take place, I think we both agreed that we need to do it in as timely a fashion as is possible to achieve the outcome,” Pompeo said before leaving Beijing, his final stop after diplomatic visits in South Korea and Japan.
The stop in China, which also covered U.S. trade disputes, was largely intended to ensure that Beijing remains committed to enforcing sanctions on North Korea, its neighbor and ally.
“China has reaffirmed its commitment to honoring the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Those have mechanisms for relief contained in them, and we agreed that at the appropriate time that those would be considered,” Pompeo said. “But we have made very clear that the sanctions and the economic relief that North Korea will receive will only happen after the full denuclearization, the complete denuclearization, of North Korea.”
North Korea has previously pledged to denuclearize, only to expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons and test missiles that could reach the United States.
The direction of the post-summit diplomacy was further clouded Friday. An article in a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, emphasized North Korea’s goal of a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which in the past has included the withdrawal of protection for South Korea and Japan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
The newspaper, believed to often reflect North Korean state policy, said calling for the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea alone, as U.S. officials have done, “denies and belittles the historical significance” of the Singapore summit.
The commentary echoed North Korea’s insistence on a phased-in nuclear dismantling in exchange for U.S. concessions. “An exchange mechanism, in which one gives in and the other rewards, cannot be established between two countries pointing nuclear arms at each other,” the Choson Sinbo report said.
As Pompeo addressed concerns that the administration did not take a tough enough negotiating stance during the summit, North Korean state television broadcast video showing Trump saluting a North Korean military officer at the historic meeting with Kim — an apparent protocol misfire.
The awkward encounter, not visible to American cameras at the summit site in Singapore, shows Trump greeting a line of North Korean officials in a hallway just moments after the two leaders posed for cameras outside. The uniformed officer, military chief No Kwang Cho, saluted as Trump extended his hand for a handshake. Trump then moved to follow suit with his own salute, while No responded with an outstretched hand, and the two men shook hands, smiling.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “common courtesy” that Trump returned the officer’s salute.
In Washington on Thursday, Trump’s pick for ambassador to South Korea, retired Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., faced a barrage of questions on the Trump-Kim agreement.
The former U.S. Pacific Command chief, speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, defended Trump’s decision to suspend “major” military exercises, saying those drills should be paused to “see if Kim Jong Un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations.”
Harris was a vocal supporter of joint miliary exercises when he was in uniform, calling them essential for U.S. readiness and an important signal to Pyongyang that the United States would defend both itself and its ally Seoul.
When asked Thursday about Trump’s comments that such routine exercises are “provocative,” as Trump called them, Harris said, “they are certainly of concern to North Korea and to China.”
He said he believed that the U.S. suspension would apply only to “major exercises” and that regular readiness and training exercises would continue.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement Thursday that suspending joint military exercises with South Korea is a mistake.
“Making unnecessary and unreciprocated concessions is not in our interests — and it is a bad negotiating tactic,” McCain said. “Parroting Chinese and North Korean propaganda by saying joint exercises are ‘provocative’ undermines our security and alliances.”
U.S. military officials waited Thursday for a better understanding of how the president’s directive to cancel future military exercises will work.
The first that is likely to be on the chopping block is Ulchi Freedom Guardian, an annual exercise typically held in late August or early September that relies heavily on computer simulation and focuses on protecting South Korea from an attack. Last summer, the operation included 17,500 U.S. troops, including 3,000 who traveled to South Korea from other locations to participate.
Marine Lt. Col. Chris Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the Pentagon is “working to fulfill the president’s guidance” and that the Defense Department and the White House are aligned and working to provide options that meet Trump’s intent.
“We will provide additional information when it is available,” Logan said.
When asked at his confirmation hearing whether he believes Pyongyang still poses a real threat, Harris said, “It is real.”
“I think we must continue to worry about the nuclear threat,” he said.
Harris reiterated that sanctions should not be loosened until North Korea makes progress, but he declined to say when in that process sanctions relief should happen.
“I don’t know, quite frankly, where along that timeline toward complete denuclearization that we should start to relax sanctions,” he said.
Democrats raised concerns about the lack of specifics on the U.S.-North Korean joint statement and asked whether the United States was loosening its security commitments to South Korea, a point Harris pushed back on.
“I’m convinced that our alliance commitments to South Korea remain ironclad and have not changed,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The job of U.S. ambassador to South Korea has been vacant since Trump took office in January 2017, a point of bipartisan consternation given the need for strong collaboration with Seoul during the sensitive nuclear discussions. Harris earned broad praise from lawmakers on Thursday and is expected to easily be confirmed.
Republicans on Thursday refrained from criticizing the agreement, although some expressed concern about falling into a protracted negotiation with the North Koreans. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he worried about fissures opening up between the United States and South Korea.
“One of the biggest dangers in all of this is going to be an attempt by the Chinese and North Koreans to split the alliance,” said Rubio, an opponent of lifting sanctions before North Korea denuclearizes.
He also expressed concern that the missile defense system the United States helped install in South Korea, known as THAAD, could be negotiated away in a potential deal.
Harris had pointed to that missile system as evidence of U.S. commitment to South Korea when testifying before Congress in February, when he was still in command in the Pacific. At that time, he also welcomed initial signs of progress with North Korea, including its participation in the Olympics in South Korea. But he said the United States and South Korea must “maintain a high military readiness posture” and project “ credible combat deterrence.”
John Wagner in Washington and Brian Murphy in Seoul contributed to this report.