Seoul, South Korea – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Asian powers on Thursday that President Trump was sticking to demands that North Korea surrender its nuclear weapons, while seeking to maintain a fragile consensus to maintain strong Sanctions against the North despite Mr. Trump's statement that "it was no longer a nuclear threat".
At a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, Pompeo softened some of the president's recent comments, but did not withdraw them, and insisted that the United Nations sanctions would remain in effect until North Korea has achieved a " complete denuclearization. "
"We are going to obtain full denuclearization," Pompeo told reporters. "Only then will there be relief from the sanctions."
His comments were intended to reassure American allies, Japan and South Korea, and to refute reports in North Korean state media that the United States had agreed to soften sanctions against North Korea. They were also a clear call for cooperation from Beijing, where Mr. Pompeo was scheduled to visit on Thursday night.
Mr. Pompeo huddled with the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan in Seoul two days after Trump met with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore for the first summit between the leaders of their two countries. In a joint statement signed there, Mr. Kim committed himself to the vague promise of "complete denuclearization" and Mr. Trump promised equally vague security guarantees.
The document was extremely clear in terms of details, including when and how North Korea would dismantle its nuclear program and what it would do with its missiles.
North Korean state media reported on Wednesday that Trump had agreed to lift sanctions when relations improved and that he had backed a "step by step" denuclearization process, rather than immediate and full dismantling. Adding to the global confusion, Mr. Trump commented that the world can "sleep well tonight" because "there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."
Mr. Pompeo said those comments were made "eyes wide open".
Mr. Trump also surprised American allies in the region when he announced on Tuesday that he would end joint military exercises with South Korea, and called the war games that the Allies conducted as "very costly" and "provocative" during decades
In Seoul on Thursday, Mr. Pompeo tried to dispel fears in South Korea and Japan that Trump had given too much.
Mr. Pompeo insisted that the approach of the Trump administration was superior to that of previous administrations.
"The relief of sanctions can not take place until we have shown that North Korea has been completely denuclearized," said Pompeo.
the sequence will be different this time, "he said, adding that Mr. Trump had made it clear to Mr. Kim that relief of sanctions would only come after denuclearization.
Mr. Pompeo said that the United States and its allies remained committed to achieving a "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea," but said more negotiations would be necessary to get there, it would be a "process," he said, adding, "it's not easy."
The government of South Korea, which has been an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Trump's diplomacy with Mr. Kim, did not praise it on Thursday.
"This is the first time that North Korea's top authority promised him to the president of the United States to work for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which we believe has propelled the political momentum for action to solve the Korean nuclear North problem, "said Kang Kyung-wha, minister of Foreign Affairs of South Korea.
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, Moon said that South Korea had to be "flexible" about the exercises if North Korea started to move towards denuclearization.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attributed a similar meaning to the summit resulting from the talks.
"I think it's significant that on the nuclear issue first, President Kim promised President Trump the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," Abe said. "I think the summit between North Korea and the United States was a step forward towards peace and stability in Northeast Asia."
But Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono played a less enthusiastic rope, stressing that stability in the region could only be achieved when North Korea verifiably dismantled "all the 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" on North Korea's move towards denuclearization.
Despite the confusion and caution in the region, there was a clear winner of the political meltdown on the Korean Peninsula: Mr. Moon from South Korea, who worked tirelessly to help Kim's meeting -Trump will take place.
On Thursday, the election results showed that Mr. Moon's Democratic Party had mounted a wave of popular support for his peace initiative to win 14 of 17 elections for mayors and governors of large cities and provinces, including Seoul , defeating 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 summit between North Korea and the United States, but that is far from how people think" Mr. Moon told Mr. Pompeo on Thursday.
In Beijing, where Mr. Pompeo was scheduled to meet on Thursday afternoon with Chinese President Xi Jinping, an initial sense that the summit had been a blessing for China quickly disappeared.
"There are great uncertainties," said Yang Xiyu, a former Foreign Ministry official who led China's relations with North Korea in the mid-2000s. "The big differences are in the step-by-step approach for the denuclearization that North Korea wants, I am worried that the United States will say that they want everything done at the same time and then it will collapse. "
The absence of a long-standing US demand that North Korea must accept verification of its nuclear dismantling presented a major obstacle to progress, he said.
"North Korea is nervous about the verification and the US wants verification," he said.
Among Mr. Pompeo's challenges will be getting the Chinese to participate in order to maintain the sanctions.
China has suggested that United Nations sanctions could be reduced, now that North Korea has come to the negotiating table.
"The UN Security Council resolutions that have been passed say that if North Korea respects and acts in accordance with the resolutions, then sanctions measures can be adjusted, even to stop or eliminate the relevant sanctions," he said. Geng Shuang, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Trump said on Tuesday that his trade dispute with China could have resulted in a weaker Chinese application of the sanctions against North Korea, but he abstained from opposing it vigorously.
Mr. Xi "really closed that border, maybe a little less in recent months, that's O.K.," he said.
"We are having very difficult conversations about trade," he added. "And I think that probably affects China in some way." And I think, in the last two months, the border is more open than it was when we started. "
Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul, South Korea, and Jane Perlez from Beijing, Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo .