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U.S. and South Korea nudge Japan to soften rhetoric as Kim summit nears



SINGAPORE — Even as Japan, the U.S. and South Korea continue working closely for denuclearization by North Korea, the three countries face a rift over whether to dial back the “maximum pressure” campaign against the rogue state ahead of a historic summit June 12 between Washington and Pyongyang.


Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera met here Sunday with South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, their first joint meeting since October.


But in a departure from the October talks, the three sides avoided using the phrase “maximum pressure” in a joint statement after the meeting. They simply “agreed to remain united in support of the ongoing diplomatic efforts in the pursuit of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.


“The goal is the complete, verifiable and irreversible destruction of all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles,” Onodera said at the meeting, held on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of top Asia-Pacific defense officials. He stressed the importance of continued pressure on Pyongyang, the Japanese government said.


During the meeting, the three officials emphasized areas of agreement.


“North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization,” Mattis said, while South Korea’s defense minister called for joint efforts to ensure that Pyongyang completes the process without straying from its current path.


The defense chiefs also agreed to continue patrolling the high seas for ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum and other cargo intended to circumvent international sanctions against North Korea.


But the different focus regarding pressure on Pyongyang also was visible at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which concluded Sunday. Onodera had called for continued “maximum pressure” in his speech Saturday, even after U.S. President Donald Trump said just hours prior that he no longer wanted to use the term.


“Onodera was concerned that Trump’s comment would send the wrong message that the international community was easing up on Pyongyang,” a Japanese defense official said.


Yet Song pushed back when he took the podium immediately afterward. “If we continue to suspect Kim Jong Un’s motives, any kind of developments will be hindered by suspicions,” he said.


Mattis also urged diplomatic efforts toward denuclearizing North Korea, and devoted much of his speech to Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea. 

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