U.S. Insists Sanctions Will Remain Until North Korea Denuclearizes

At a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the president’s recent comments about North Korea no longer being a nuclear threat were made with “eyes wide open.”

BEIJING — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Asian powers on Thursday that President Trump was sticking to demands that North Korea surrender its nuclear weapons, as he sought to hold together a fragile consensus on maintaining tough sanctions against the North despite Mr. Trump’s declaration that it was “no longer a nuclear threat.”

At a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, Mr. Pompeo softened some of the president’s recent comments — but did not retract them — and insisted that United Nations sanctions would remain in place until North Korea had accomplished “complete denuclearization.”

“We are going to get the complete denuclearization,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters. “Only then will there be relief from sanctions.”

He made the same point later Thursday in Beijing, where he met with China’s president, Xi Jinping. But China had already shown signs of breaking ranks on tough enforcement of the sanctions against its neighbor and trading partner, saying that with North Korea now at the negotiating table, they could legitimately be eased.

China did not appear to have budged from that position on Thursday. At a news conference alongside China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, Mr. Pompeo conceded that the United Nations sanctions had “mechanisms for relief” and said that “we have agreed at the appropriate time they will be considered.” But he insisted that time would be after “full denuclearization.”

Mr. Wang, who said China was intent on playing “a constructive role” in connection with the North, declined to answer a question about China’s intentions on the sanctions.

Mr. Pompeo’s tough stance on Thursday — two days after Mr. Trump met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore for the first-ever summit meeting between leaders of their two countries — was intended to reassure America’s allies Japan and South Korea, and to deny reports in North Korea’s state media that the United States had agreed to ease the sanctions. They were also a clear appeal for cooperation from Beijing.

Credit...Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press

In a joint statement signed in Singapore, Mr. Kim committed to the vague promise of “complete denuclearization” and Mr. Trump promised equally vague security assurances. The document was glaringly light on details, including when and how North Korea would dismantle its nuclear program and what it would do with its missiles.

North Korean state media on Wednesday reported that Mr. Trump had agreed to lift sanctions when relations improved and that he had endorsed a “step-by-step” denuclearization process, rather than immediate and total dismantlement. Adding to global confusion were comments by Mr. Trump that the world can “sleep well tonight” because “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

Mr. Pompeo said in Seoul, where he conferred with the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan, that those remarks were made with “eyes wide open.”

Mr. Trump also stunned American allies in the region when he announced Tuesday that he would end joint military exercises with South Korea, calling the war games the allies have conducted for decades “very expensive” and “provocative.” Even Pentagon officials were caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s announcement.

In a further display of disjointed American messaging on North Korea, Mr. Trump’s assurances that Mr. Kim desires peace were undercut by a North Korean computer hacking alert from the Department of Homeland Security.

Barely 48 hours after the summit meeting, the department issued a report on Thursday warning of “North Korean government malicious cyberactivity” caused by an invasive software known as Hidden Cobra. It echoed previous warnings about the North Korean malware, but the announcement made clear that the attacks continue.

In Seoul, Mr. Pompeo sought to allay fears in South Korea and Japan that Mr. Trump had given away too much. He insisted the Trump administration’s approach was superior to those of previous administrations.

“The sequence will be different this time,” he said, adding that Mr. Trump had made it clear to Mr. Kim that sanctions relief would come only after denuclearization.

Mr. Pompeo said the United States and its allies remained committed to achieving a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea,” but he said more negotiations to get there would be necessary. It will be “a process,” he said, adding, “not an easy one.”

The government of South Korea, which has been an eager supporter of Mr. Trump’s diplomacy with Mr. Kim, spared no praise on Thursday.

“This is the first time that the highest authority of North Korea promised to the president of the United States to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which we believe has bolstered the political momentum for action to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue,” said Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister.

On Thursday, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea indicated that his government supported Mr. Trump’s decision to end joint military exercises. Speaking at a meeting of his National Security Council, Mr. Moon said South Korea needed to be “flexible” about the exercises if North Korea started moving toward denuclearization.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attached a similar significance to the summit talks’ result.

“I think it is significant that regarding the nuclear issue first, Chairman Kim promised to President Trump the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Abe said. “I think that the U.S.-North Korea summit meeting was a step forward toward peace and stability in Northeast Asia.”

But Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, struck a less enthusiastic chord, stressing that stability in the region could only be achieved when North Korea verifiably dismantled “all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of all ranges.”

Mr. Kono also suggested that a “pause” in joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea should be “contingent upon” North Korean action toward denuclearization.

Despite the confusion and wariness in the region, there was one clear winner from the political thaw on the Korean Peninsula: Mr. Moon of South Korea, who worked tirelessly to help make the Kim-Trump meeting happen.

On Thursday, election results showed that the Democratic Party of Mr. Moon had ridden a wave of popular support for his peace initiative to win 14 of 17 elections for mayors and governors of big cities and provinces, including Seoul, routing the conservative opposition party Liberty Korea.

The elections took place on Wednesday, one day after the talks between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump. Despite widespread skepticism, many South Koreans celebrated the meeting after months of living in the shadow of a possible war.

“Some analysts give a low score to the North Korea-United States summit, but that is far from how the people think of it,” Mr. Moon told Mr. Pompeo on Thursday.

In Beijing, an initial sense that the summit meeting had been a boon to China quickly disappeared.

“There are big uncertainties,” said Yang Xiyu, a former Foreign Ministry official who directed China’s relations with North Korea in the mid-2000s. “The big differences are on the step-by-step approach for denuclearization that North Korea wants. I am worried the U.S. will say they want everything done at once and then there is collapse.”

The absence of any mention of a longstanding American demand that North Korea must agree to verification of its nuclear dismantlement presented a major stumbling block to progress, he said.

“North Korea is nervous about verification and the U.S. wants verification,” he said.

Mr. Trump said on Tuesday that his trade dispute with China might have resulted in weaker Chinese enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, but he refrained from strenuously objecting.

Mr. Xi “really closed up that border. Maybe a little less the last couple of months. That’s O.K.,” he said.

“We’re having very tough talks on trade,” he added. “And I think that probably affects China somewhat. And I think, over the last two months, the border is more open than it was when we first started.”

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