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Mattis sees ‘reasons for optimism’ after North Korea pledges weapons testing halt

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on Nov. 6, 2017. (Matti Matikainen/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed optimism Monday about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s promise to cease testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons ahead of his expected upcoming summits with the presidents of South Korea and the United States.

“Right now, I think there is a lot of reasons for optimism that the negotiations will be fruitful, and we’ll see,” Mattis said Monday in response to a reporter’s question just before he met with Thailand’s Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon at the Pentagon.

The defense secretary did not further elaborate on the issue. Earlier Monday, Pentagon officials declined to respond to questions about Kim’s announcement on April 20 that he would suspend his nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs to focus on economic development.

Some Pentagon officials have privately expressed skepticism about Kim’s sincerity, noting North Korea’s long history of failing to live up to deals negotiated with the United States, including accords struck by the administrations of former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Kim is set to meet Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the heavily fortified border area between their two countries. Kim is also expected to meet in late May or early June with President Donald Trump.

Trump expressed optimism about Kim’s announcement via Twitter, noting April 20 “progress [was] being made,” and writing Sunday, in a tweet that also disparaged an NBC News anchor, that “we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!”

North Korea has neither publicly announced that they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons stockpiles nor that the topic was one that they would consider discussing. South Korean officials have said denuclearization would be discussed when Kim and Moon meet. The United States maintains its long-held goal “for the complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that the United States was not convinced Kim was ready to part with his weapons programs. But like Mattis, she expressed optimism.

“We’re not naive in this process,” she told reporters. “We’ve seen some steps in the right direction but we have a long way to go.”

Sanders said U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” – stringent economic sanctions alongside diplomatic negotiations – would continue until Kim agreed to surrender his nuclear weapons.

The United States maintains more than 28,000 troops in South Korea, a presence that has remained on the peninsula since the Korean War ended in a cease fire in 1953. Their presence in South Korea is not expected to be among the bargaining chips that the United States would consider ceding to North Korea.

American and South Korean troops regularly conduct joint training, including defensive drills to rehearse the nations’ reactions should North Korea attack. Manning said Monday that the United States has not adjusted its force posture since it began negotiations with North Korea in recent months.

“From a military perspective from the Department of Defense, there has been no change in our posture and our determination to be ready to fight tonight,” he said.


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