MUSCAT, Oman — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that he does not want to talk about the Korean Peninsula “at all” at this time, underscoring the sensitivity with which he believes Washington must handle a potential meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
Mattis, speaking on a military flight from Washington to the Middle East, said that media questions about North Korea are “very valid,” but he will leave it to the State Department and senior members of the White House to address questions about the meeting because it is a diplomatically led effort. The Pentagon chief addressed the issue for the first time since Trump unexpectedly accepted an invitation Thursday to meet with Kim after years of his regime’s threats against the United States and South Korea.
“When you get into a position like this, the potential for misunderstanding remains very high and grows higher,” Mattis said. “I want those who are actually … in the discussions to answer all media questions.”
Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior officials were with Trump when he met Thursday with South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, who relayed an invitation to Trump to meet. Chung said it came with a promise that Kim would temporarily stop his ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs and an acknowledgment that the South Korean and U.S. militaries would continue to carry out exercises together.
The meeting potentially provides a framework through which the two Koreas and the United States can de-escalate years of tension that ratcheted up as the Kim regime tested nuclear bombs, launched ballistic missiles over Japan and threatened to destroy U.S. cities. But if the meeting fails, it could leave Trump and his senior advisers feeling as though there is no alternative with North Korea but war.
Trump signaled Saturday night in Pennsylvania that he’s uncertain what is to come.
“Who know what’s going to happen?” he said, speaking at campaign rally for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone. “I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal in the world.”
Mattis, asked about the military aspects of the discussions, declined to answer.
“If I was on your side of the cabin, I would be doing the same thing,” Mattis told a reporter on his plane asking the question. “But what I want you to understand right now is that every word is going to be … parsed apart across different cultures, and at different times of the day, and in different contexts.”
The approach is in keeping with Mattis’ desire to put diplomacy at the forefront with military might underpinning it. The Pentagon chief, a retired Marine general known to have influence with Trump, has repeatedly stressed looking for ways to avoid war with North Korea.
The military dimensions to the talks are not all clear but include annual military exercises that are expected to begin within weeks. The largest, known as Foal Eagle, typically involves thousands of U.S. troops drilling with an even larger South Korean force. Last year’s exercise included everything from a visit by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to participation for the first time by advanced F-35B fighters. North Korea has typically responded to the exercises with outrage.
Trump also addressed the potential talks with two tweets Saturday afternoon, saying in the first that he had discussed the potential meeting with North Korea “at length” with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“President Xi told me he appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative,” Trump wrote. “China continues to be helpful!”
Trump noted in a second tweet that North Korea has not conducted a missile test since Nov. 28, and has “promised not to do so through our meetings.” Trump believes North Korea will honor that commitment, he wrote.
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