The Trump administration on Thursday defended its overture to North Korea, insisting that it is not leaving Pacific allies vulnerable and that vague language in the 1.5-page agreement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un represents a solid commitment from North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.
Completing a round of diplomatic visits to brief South Korea, Japan and China on the summit outcome, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said sanctions on North Korea will not be lifted until “after the full denuclearization, the complete denuclearization” that he said Kim has agreed to.
The document Kim and Trump signed Tuesday in Singapore does not contain an explicit pledge to “complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization,” the standard Pompeo had said would be the only acceptable outcome for U.S. engagement with Pyongyang.
Pompeo has since said it is “silly” to think that the document’s wording, which calls for “complete” denuclearization but includes no deadline, does not meet the test he had set.
“With respect to the pace at which the denuclearization will take place, I think we both agreed that we need to do it in as timely a fashion as is possible to achieve the outcome,” Pompeo said before leaving Beijing, his final stop after diplomatic visits in South Korea and Japan.
The stop in China, which also covered U.S. trade disputes, was largely intended to ensure Beijing remains committed to enforcing sanctions on North Korea, its neighbor and ally.
“China has reaffirmed its commitment to honoring the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Those have mechanisms for relief contained in them, and we agreed that at the appropriate time that those would be considered,” Pompeo said. “But we have made very clear that the sanctions and the economic relief that North Korea will receive will only happen after the full denuclearization, the complete denuclearization, of North Korea.”
North Korea has previously pledged to denuclearize, only to expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons and test missiles that could reach U.S. shores.
As Pompeo addressed concerns that the administration did not take a tough enough negotiating stance during the summit, North Korean state television broadcast video showing Trump saluting a North Korean military officer at the historic meeting with Kim — an apparent protocol misfire.
The awkward encounter, not visible to American cameras at the summit site in Singapore, shows Trump greeting a line of North Korean officials in a hallway just moments after the two leaders posed for cameras outside. The unformed officer, military chief No Kwang Cho, saluted as Trump extended his hand for a handshake. Trump then moved to follow suit with his own salute, while No responded with an outstretched hand, and the two men shook hands, smiling.
In Washington on Thursday, Trump’s pick for ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, faced a barrage of questions on the agreement struck between Trump and Kim.
The former Navy admiral and commander of Pacific Command, speaking at his confirmation hearing before a Senate panel, defended Trump’s decision to suspend “major” military exercises, saying those drills should be paused to “see if Kim Jong Un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations.”
Harris was a vocal supporter of joint miliary exercises when he was in uniform, calling them essential for U.S. readiness and an important signal to Pyongyang that the United States would defend both itself and its ally Seoul.
When asked Thursday about Trump’s comments that such routine exercises are “provocative,” as Trump called them, Harris said, “they are certainly of concern to North Korea and to China.”
He said he believed that the U.S. suspension would only apply to “major exercises,” and regular readiness and training exercises would continue.
The top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Robert Menendez, criticized Trump’s assurance following the summit that Americans could “sleep well tonight” and that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear “threat.”
“I didn’t sleep much better,” said Menendez.
When asked if he believes Pyongyang still poses a real threat, Harris said, “it is real.”
“I think we must continue to worry about the nuclear threat,” he said.
Harris reiterated that sanctions should not be loosened until North Korea makes progress, but declined to say when in that process sanctions relief should happen.
“I don’t know where along that timeline toward complete denuclearization that we should start to relax sanctions,” he said.
Democrats raised concerns about the lack of specifics on the U.S.-North Korean joint statement and asked if the U.S. was loosening its security commitments to South Korea, a point Harris pushed back on.
“I’m convinced that our alliance commitments to South Korea remain ironclad and have not changed,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The job of U.S. ambassador to South Korea has been vacant since Trump took office in January, a point of bipartisan consternation given the need for strong collaboration with Seoul during the sensitive nuclear discussions. Harris earned broad praise from lawmakers on Thursday, however, and he is expected to easily be confirmed.
Republicans refrained from criticizing the agreement on Thursday, though some expressed concern about falling into a protracted negotiation with the North Koreans. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said he worried about fissures opening up between the U.S. and its ally South Korea.
“One of the biggest dangers in all of this is going to be an attempt by the Chinese and North Koreans to split the alliance,” said Rubio, an opponent of lifting sanctions before North Korea denuclearizes.
He also expressed concern that the missile defense system the U.S. helped install in South Korea, known as THAAD, could be negotiated away in a potential deal.
Harris had pointed to that missile system as evidence of U.S. commitment to South Korea when testifying before Congress in February, when he was still in command in the Pacific. At that time, he also welcomed initial signs of progress with North Korea, including participation in the Olympic Games in South Korea. But he said the United States and South Korea must “maintain a high military readiness posture” and project “ credible combat deterrence.”
Also on Thursday, Trump continued to face criticism for downplaying human rights concerns about Kim’s regime after he called the North Korean leader a “tough guy” in an interview that aired Wednesday night and said that “a lot of bad things” have taken place in other nations.
The praise was Trump’s latest positive assessment for Kim, a dictator who has directed murders of family members and starved his own people, since the two held a summit in Singapore earlier this week to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The president’s take on Kim’s record echoed past assessments of the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Trump brushed aside questions about killings of journalists and political opponents.
In an interview that was taped aboard Air Force One while Trump was flying back to the United States from Singapore, he was pressed by Fox News’s Bret Baier on Kim’s human rights record. Baier noted that Trump had praised Kim as “a very talented person” and had said they have good chemistry.
“You know you call people sometimes killers; he is a killer,” Baier said. “He’s clearly executing people.”
“He’s a tough guy,” Trump replied. “Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you can do that at 27 years old, I mean that’s one in 10,000 that could do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.”
“But he’s still done some really bad things,” Baier said.
“Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things,” Trump said. “I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”
Trump said he was making his assessment of Kim based on the period during which they had gotten to know one another.
“I am going from today,” he said. “I am going from maybe 90 days ago. Because we really started this.”
Trump’s comments were condemned on social media Wednesday night by several Democrats, including Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).
“Trump can’t conceal his admiration for despots, or his disdain for democratic leaders like Justin Trudeau. And still, Republicans stay silent,” Schiff wrote on Twitter, referring to the Canadian prime minister, who Trump accused of unfairly undermining him on trade over the weekend.
John Wagner contributed to this report.