Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said Sunday that North Korea will receive relief from sanctions only after taking clear and irreversible steps to end its nuclear program, on the heels of President Trump’s announcement that his summit next week with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is back on.
Addressing concerns that the U.S. may be rushing to strike a breakthrough in the unprecedented summit between the two leaders, Mr. Mattis said the administration has no illusions about the difficulty of the talks with Pyongyang.
“We can anticipate, at best, a bumpy road to the [negotiations],” Mr. Mattis said at the start of a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. “We will continue to implement all U.N Security Council resolutions on North Korea. North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization.”
His comments came after Mr. Trump decided Friday to proceed with the summit with Mr. Kim on June 12 in Singapore, a dramatic reversal in the high-stakes diplomacy.
Eight days after canceling the summit due to Pyongyang’s “open hostility” toward the U.S., Mr. Trump announced the decision to go ahead with the meeting after hosting Mr. Kim’s envoy in the White House.
“I think you’ll have a very positive result in the end,” Mr. Trump said after the 90-minute session with Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. “We would be making a big mistake if we didn’t have it.”
But the president downplayed expectations for a quick deal on Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons, saying such an agreement won’t be signed in Singapore and the meeting will serve only as the start of “a process.”
“We’re not going to go in and sign something on June 12, and we never were,” Mr. Trump said. “I told them [Friday], take your time, we can go fast or we can go slowly. We would not take sanctions off unless they did it [denuclearize]. The sanctions are very powerful.”
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been a source of major security tensions that persisted despite a series of U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Pyongyang also has demonstrated advances in ballistic missile technology that experts believe now threatens the U.S. mainland.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said that while the solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis must be diplomatic, the defense cooperation among the U.S. and its Asian allies was key to bringing it about.
“Japan, Korea and the U.S. continue to agree that pressure is needed to be applied on North Korea,” Mr. Onodera told reporters after his meeting with Mr. Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo.
Amid the high-level preparations for the Trump-Kim summit, North Korea’s state-run news agency reported Sunday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is interested in visiting North Korea and meeting Mr. Kim. The KCNA report said Mr. Assad made the comments last week while receiving the credentials for the North Korean ambassador and predicted Mr. Kim will “achieve the final victory and realize the reunification of Korea without fail.”
Mr. Kim is believed to have traveled outside his isolated country only twice — both times to Beijing within the past two months to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
For the meeting in Singapore, Mr. Kim reportedly wants to stay at a five-star hotel where a presidential suite costs $6,000 per night. The Washington Post reported that Mr. Kim doesn’t want to pay for the bill, and that the U.S. is seeking ways to pay for his stay despite sanctions that forbid a direct payment.
Mr. Trump returned to the White House Sunday afternoon from Camp David, where he had spent most of the weekend making calls to foreign leaders and preparing for his meeting with Mr. Kim and the G-7 summit that begins Friday in Quebec, Canada.
High on the agenda at the G-7 will be the new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum for imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, an action that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau termed “insulting.”
The president also conferred by phone twice Saturday with one of his outside lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, over strategy for countering special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Mr. Giuliani said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he feels “terrible” about taking away the president’s time from weighty international issues to discuss what Mr. Trump repeatedly has called a “witch hunt.”
“I’ve got to take him away from North Korea,” Mr. Giuliani said. “I told Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo that, ‘Please don’t get angry at me. You know I’ll only do it if I have to.’”
Some critics of the administration are expressing concern that Mr. Trump is too eager to make a deal with North Korea.
“I believe the danger now is that this’ll be a gigantic ‘photo-op,’” said Bill Richardson, former U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration. “And now our position has shifted dramatically. Now we are saying we are for and OK with a phased denuclearization.”
Speaking on “This Week” on ABC, Mr. Richardson said he nevertheless is “glad” the summit will take place.
“Still, we can get gains,” he said. “I think success is some kind of curbing of the use of nuclear and missile testing, destruction of weapons, missile and nuclear, maybe of a phased process.”
Former Trump Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert said critics are underestimating Mr. Trump. He said on “This Week” that moving ahead rapidly with the June 12 summit should provide U.S. officials with a sense of whether North Korea is serious about disarming.
“The real danger here is 30 or more nuclear weapons on the top of missiles that can reach the United States,” Mr. Bossert said. “So I think all the criticism of the president’s ‘means’ lose focus on the ‘ends’ that we’re trying to achieve. I don’t believe that this is really a situation where the president has anything to lose.”
He said success would be “a strategic political decision to disarm.”
“What President Trump is doing is hurrying, and that’s not to be criticized. He’s moving faster, not because it’s just a threat, but because he’s trying to attain or ascertain the motive and intent of the [North Korean] leadership,” Mr. Bossert said. “If they don’t have the intent to make a strategic decision, and that means disarm as a first step, not freeze, but halt and disarm — turn over their nukes and their missiles — then this is a big waste of time. All the definitions and all the big protracted negotiations that might come after would all be for naught.”
Echoing Mr. Mattis, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Sunday that Mr. Trump intends to keep the sanctions pressure on North Korea unless and until an agreement is reached on denuclearization. He said on “Fox News Sunday” that includes pushing for continued cooperation from China, which is Pyongyang’s main trading partner.
“This is tough economic pressure,” Mr. Kudlow said. “Everything’s on the table, including military action. As we head into the negotiations, I think the president is being very realistic and it’s going to take a period of time. I don’t think we’re going to let up on any of these matters. That’s not what President Trump wanted to do.”
Mr. Trump said he told Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol that the U.S. will hold off on imposing more economic sanctions against Pyongyang while they are working toward a denuclearization agreement.
“We had hundreds of new sanctions ready to go on,” Mr. Trump said. “I said I’m not going to put them on until such time as the talks break down. We have hundreds [of sanctions] that are ready to go. I said, ‘Would I do that when we’re talking so nicely?’”
The president even shunned, for the moment, using the term “maximum pressure campaign,” a favorite phrase of his in describing the consequences to Pyongyang if it refuses to negotiate.
“I don’t even want to use the term ‘maximum pressure’ anymore, because we’re getting along,” the president said. “It’s not a question of maximum pressure.”
He said the North Koreans asked about the lifting of sanctions, adding, “I look forward to the day I when I can take the sanctions off.”
Also among the topics discussed with Kim Yong-chol were the economic rehabilitation of North Korea and the possibility of signing an agreement to formally end the Korean War, in which a truce was signed in 1953 separating North and South Korea along a demilitarized zone.
The president said an agreement to end the war is among the more likely prospects to come out of the Singapore summit.
“That’s something that could come out of the meeting,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We talked about ending the war. It’s very important historically. Can you believe we’re talking about ending the Korean War?”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.