The top diplomats of the United States and its two East Asian allies reaffirmed yesterday that sanctions on North Korea will stay in place until Pyongyang achieves "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" (CVID) of its weapons of mass destruction.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, together with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, stressed the stiff sanctions regime as they highlighted their watertight coordination on North Korea.
"Our three countries will continue to be vocal in reminding each country of its obligations to (enforce sanctions). While we are encouraged by the progress of these talks, progress alone does not justify the relaxation of the existing sanctions regime," Mr Pompeo said at a news conference. "There is also no change to our ironclad commitment on the defence of our allies South Korea and Japan."
Mr Pompeo's two-day visit to Pyongyang, which ended on Saturday, exposed fissures in how the US and North Korea see the way forward on their leaders' joint declaration at the June 12 summit in Singapore.
He then flew to Tokyo and met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who praised him for his "strong leadership". Mr Pompeo also gave his Japanese and South Korean counterparts an update on his meetings with former spy chief and top party official Kim Yong Chol. Unlike his two prior visits to Pyongyang, Mr Pompeo did not meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.
The visit to Pyongyang was meant to hash out the nitty-gritty of how to implement the joint declaration, and Mr Pompeo has said "a good deal of time" was spent on "complicated issues", such as how the North can make a full declaration of its weapons of mass destruction, and set a timeline for giving them up.
When asked if North Korea can expect concessions, he said economic sanctions were "a different kettle of fish" from other areas where "things will have to take place along the way to help achieve the security assurances that North Korea needs, and to improve the peaceful relations between our two countries".
Regarding whether the US has relaxed its push for CVID, given recent statements that shied away from using the phrase, the three envoys stressed this was not the case.
Mr Kono, noting that CVID was clearly spelt out at the United Nations Security Council, said: "The words may be different but there is not much significance in the different phrases and words being used."
Dr Kang added: "Obviously, terms have historical context and this has been somewhat difficult for North Korea to sign on to in written form."
The North, she stressed, has been "very, very clear" on what complete denuclearisation means and what it involves - the "complete dismantlement of the weapons, the materials, the facilities, the plants". "This is a very clearly set goal for North Korea and we expect them to deliver on this commitment," she said.
Observers told The Straits Times that the emphasis on sanctions is geared towards China, which has been openly backing away from the pressure campaign. But Kobe University security expert Tosh Minohara said: "From the Chinese perspective, there really is no incentive to cooperate given that it wants to create its own sphere of influence.
"I strongly believe that (Chinese President) Xi Jinping is coaching Kim, telling him: 'We are in your corner, and so negotiate strong and hard.'"