North Korea gets relief only when it gives up nukes, Mattis says

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A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/Files

North Korea will get relief from international sanctions only when it has shown irreversible moves toward denuclearization, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said ahead of a summit next week between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Speaking Sunday in Singapore at the start of a meeting with the defense ministers of South Korea and Japan, Mattis warned that “we can anticipate at best a bumpy road to the negotiations.”

“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,” Mattis said. The ministers were in Singapore for the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, which brings together global defense officials.

He added that all United Nations Security Council resolutions on the regime must stay in place. “North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization,” Mattis said.

His comments came after Trump conceded that North Korea won’t agree immediately to give up its nuclear arsenal, and seemingly walked back expectations for a quick deal from his planned June 12 Singapore meeting with Kim.

Asked Friday about the vaunted “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions enacted to rein in North Korea, Trump said, “I don’t want to use that term. Because we’re getting along.”

The U.S. has previously insisted that North Korea give up all its weapons before it can shed its pariah status or get any relief from sanctions. North Korea has bristled at the idea, and it’s unclear if the two sides will be able to bridge their differences enough for the meeting to be deemed a success.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to join the Singapore summit with the meeting likely to declare an end to the Korean War after almost 70 years, the JoongAng Daily reported Sunday, citing a diplomatic source it didn’t identify.

Meanwhile, North Korea moved to replace its defense minister ahead of the pivotal negotiations, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported Sunday, citing people that it didn’t identify. No Kwang Chol, the head of the ruling Workers’ Party’s second economic committee, was chosen to replace Pak Yong Sik, who served as defense chief since May 2015.

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters after the meeting with Mattis and South Korean minister Song Young-moo that the nations agreed “it is very important for North Korea to take concrete actions in a perfect and irreversible way.”

“Both pressure and dialogue are important,” he said, adding “we believe that pressure will be maintained, which will help solve this problem.”

Japan has taken a cautious stance on the North Korea summit, concerned about easing pressure on a regime that only months ago was firing missiles over Japanese territory. Onodera in comments to the forum on Saturday warned against rewarding North Korea for “solely agreeing” to talks, and said Japan sought the removal of ballistic missiles of “all flight ranges” from North Korea.

The summit was resurrected after Trump called it off in a letter to Kim on May 24, complaining of “the tremendous anger and open hostility” in comments from North Korea. But he had also left the door open, writing, “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”

Trump’s talk now of an open-ended process is a jarring shift from the speedy outcome that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials demanded when the summit was in limbo. Trump didn’t say what he hopes to get out of the summit, nor did he talk about what the U.S. was prepared to give up, aside from musing about the possibility of a declaration ending the Korean War for good.

U.S. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, said the objectives on North Korea had not changed, even if “there is a lot of work to be done” to achieve eventual denuclearization.

“You can see the president adjust his rhetoric, depending on the circumstances, but I have not seen any relaxation in the sanctions,” he told Bloomberg News on Saturday. “We’ll be hopeful that the outcome will be a good one, but also need to be prepared for other outcomes as well.”