Mattis Mum on North Korea in Lead-Up to Proposed Trump-Kim Summit

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets visits the Trấn Quốc Pagoda during a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam on Jan. 25, 2018. (DoD/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets visits the Trấn Quốc Pagoda during a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam on Jan. 25, 2018. (DoD/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sworn off comment on North Korea in the lead-up to the proposed summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

"I do not want to talk about Korea at all. It's that delicate," Mattis told reporters traveling with him Sunday on a trip to the Mideast.

Mattis said he would refrain from discussing the military's role in keeping pressure on North Korea to negotiate and leave it to the White House and the State Department to work out the details of arranging the summit.

"Right now, every word is going to be nuanced and parsed apart across different cultures, at different times of the day, in different context" and it is best for him to stay on the sidelines, he said.

Mattis has repeatedly stressed that diplomacy is the first option in dealing with North Korea, even as Trump and Kim traded personal insults and Kim boasted of having developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering nuclear warheads to U.S. mainland targets.

Mattis said he is deferring to the diplomats "because it's that delicate. When you get into a position like this, the potential for misunderstanding remains very high or goes higher."

Through Monday, North Korea also maintained silence on the summit itself while its propaganda outlets stuck to routine pronouncements that its army and people would never bow to economic sanctions or military threats.

"We have not seen nor received an official response from the North Korean regime regarding the North Korea-U.S. summit," said Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman for South Korea's Ministry of Unification, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

"I feel they're approaching this matter with caution and they need time to organize their stance," Baik said.

Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, began laying the groundwork for the summit by visiting China and Russia to outline a plan that would have Moon meet with Kim next month ahead of Trump-Kim talks, tentatively scheduled for late May.

In Beijing on Monday, Chung met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who used the official names for North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and South Korea (Republic of Korea) to give his endorsement of both the Moon-Kim talks and the Trump-Kim summit.

Following his meeting with Chung, Xi said, "We expect a smooth DPRK-ROK summit and DPRK-U.S. dialogue," China's state-run Xinhua news agency said.

It was Chung who last Thursday night at the White House made the stunning announcement that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim on the "denuclearization" of the peninsula.

Chung, who had met with Kim in Pyongyang earlier last week, said the North Korean leader had agreed to a temporary halt In missile and nuclear tests leading up to the meeting with Trump.

Kim also agreed that the U.S.-South Korea "Foal Eagle" and "Key Resolve" joint military exercises expected to begin next month would not derail the summit, Chung said.

At the White House on Monday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that if the North keeps its promises, "the meeting will go on as planned" in what would be the first face-to-face talks between a sitting U.S. president and the leader of North Korea.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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