US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Asia persuading Washington's allies in the region that denuclearisation by Pyongyang will happen before sanctions are lifted. North Korea says it will disarm in step-by-step process.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (L) watches as South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (C) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R), at the end of a joint press conference following their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul, South Korea, June 14, 2018.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (L) watches as South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (C) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R), at the end of a joint press conference following their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul, South Korea, June 14, 2018. (AP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there will be no sanctions relief for North Korea until it denuclearises.

Pompeo's comments in Seoul on Thursday followed reports in North Korean state media that said US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had agreed to a "step-by-step" process. That was interpreted as meaning the US would grant concessions to North Korea along the way despite long-standing US insistence that it would not.

Pompeo said Trump had been "incredibly clear" about the sequencing of the process.

Speaking alongside the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers in Seoul, Pompeo says that "we're going to get denuclearisation." He says that "only then will there be relief from the sanctions."

Nuclear threat over?

Pompeo also said Trump's statement on Wednesday that the nuclear threat from the North was over following his meeting with Kim in Singapore on Tuesday was issued with "eyes wide open." He brushed off a North Korean state-run media report suggesting Trump would grant concessions even before Pyongyang fully rids itself of nuclear weapons.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued a joint statement after their summit on Tuesday that reaffirmed the North's commitment to "work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula," an end to joint US-South Korean military exercises and gave US guarantees of security to North Korea.

North Korean state media reported on Wednesday Kim and Trump had recognised the principle of "step-by-step and simultaneous action" to achieve peace and denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

The summit statement provided no details on when Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons programme or how the dismantling might be verified.

Achievements questioned

Sceptics of how much the meeting achieved pointed to the North Korean leadership's long-held view that nuclear weapons are a bulwark against what it fears are US plans to overthrow it and unite the Korean peninsula.

However, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the world, through the summit, had escaped the threat of war, echoing Trump's upbeat assessment of his meeting with Kim.

"There have been many analyses on the outcome of the summit but I think what's most important was that the people of the world, including those in the United States, Japan and Koreans, have all been able to escape the threat of war, nuclear weapons and missiles," Moon told Pompeo.

Pompeo insisted Pyongyang was committed to giving up its nuclear arsenal but said it would "be a process, not an easy one."

Verifiable and complete?

The United States has long insisted on complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation by North Korea but, in the summit statement, North Korea committed only to the "complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula," phrasing it has used in the past.

Trump returned to the United States on Wednesday and took to Twitter to hail the meeting, the first between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader, as a major win for American security.

"Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office," Trump tweeted. "There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong-un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!"

An agreement with little detail

Democratic critics in the United States said the agreement was short on detail and the Republican president had made too many concessions to Kim, whose country is under UN sanctions for its nuclear and weapons programmes and is widely condemned for human rights abuses.

"It could be the case that our effort won’t ... work but we are determined to set the conditions so that we can right this failure of decades and reset the conditions for North Korea's participation in the community of nations," Pompeo said after a trilateral meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono.

Tokyo has reacted with concern at Trump's plans to cancel military exercises with South Korea, saying such drills are vital for East Asian security.

Two North Korean missiles flew over Japan last year as Pyongyang made rapid advances in its programme to develop a missile capable of striking the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.

Tokyo is working on arranging a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un, with one possibility including the premier's visit to Pyongyang around August, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.

A government source said Japanese officials planned to discuss the summit with North Korean officials at an international conference on Northeast Asian security to be held in Mongolia on Thursday and Friday.

South Korea's Kang said Seoul and Washington shared the same goals and approach to achieving denuclearisation, but hoped that there would be a clearer picture in the future.

"The issue of South Korea-US joint exercises is one that should be discussed between the military authorities between the two Koreas, and it will be going forward," Kang said. "But the issues of the alliance should be dealt with under the premise we maintain joint ironclad defence posture."

She said follow-up negotiations would be key in achieving the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Threat assessment unchanged

The US intelligence assessment of the nuclear and other military threat posed by North Korea to US and allied forces in Asia and the northwest Pacific remained unchanged despite Trump and Moon's assertions about the North Korean nuclear threat being over, a senior US official responsible for studying the North Korean military said.

US officials said it was unclear what types of training involving US and South Korean troops might cross into Trump's now forbidden zone of "war games." But big, joint US-South Korean exercises appeared off-limits under the new guidance.

"Make no mistake, we are going to maintain the readiness of our forces in South Korea," said one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official acknowledged, however, it was still not certain how that was going to happen.

The United States maintains about 28,500 soldiers in South Korea, which remains in a technical state of war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies