SINGAPORE – Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said he reached an agreement Sunday with his U.S. and South Korean counterparts to work in tandem to urge North Korea to take concrete steps toward denuclearization, less than 10 days before a planned summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But Onodera shied away from specifying what the three allies concluded about the strategy of using pressure against the North during his hour-long talk with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo in Singapore.
The three “agreed to closely cooperate to compel North Korea to take concrete steps” in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, Onodera told reporters following the meeting with Mattis and Song.
Asked whether the three agreed to continue taking a tough stance against Pyongyang, Onodera only said, “Japan, the United States and South Korea have basically agreed to maintain pressure.”
While Tokyo continues to call on the international community to put pressure on North Korea to force it to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, Washington and Seoul have begun to hold dialogue with Pyongyang.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday that he does not want to use the term “maximum pressure” anymore because Washington and Pyongyang are now “getting along.”
Mattis said before the start of the meeting that “North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization,” but did not use the word “pressure.”
This is a change from their previous agreement to “maximize pressure” on Pyongyang in response to its recent U.N.-defying nuclear and missile tests.
The three defense ministers met on the sidelines of the three-day Asia security summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which ends Sunday. It was their first trilateral meeting since October last year.
Onodera said he told Mattis and Song that Japan is keen to resolve the abduction issue and make Pyongyang give up its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which threaten Japan.
Amid growing speculation that Kim will call for a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. military forces in South Korea at the summit with Trump, the three defense ministers may have also exchanged views on America’s military presence in East Asia.
The unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit is scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore.
On Saturday, Onodera said in a speech at the Shangri-La forum that Pyongyang should not be rewarded just for agreeing to talk.
“We recognize that pressure will be maintained,” he said. “We should not give rewards only because (Pyongyang) has agreed to hold dialogue.”
He also noted that North Korea had “deceived” the international community in the past.
Song, who was at the same session as Onodera, criticized the Japanese defense chief, saying progress will “not be made without negotiations.”
Onodera and Song held separate bilateral talks later on Sunday.
On Wednesday, Onodera and Mattis met in Hawaii and agreed to maintain pressure and sanctions on North Korea. In January, Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also confirmed that they wanted to maximize pressure on North Korea.
North Korea surprised the international community at the beginning of the year by extending an olive branch to its rival in the south and promoting diplomacy. But Japan’s stance toward the North has been swayed changes in policy in other countries, including the United States and South Korea.
Tokyo is warning its allies against what it calls North Korea’s “smile diplomacy.” It thinks Pyongyang is trying to weaken international economic sanctions against it by getting close to South Korea, China and the United States.
Inter-Korean relations have markedly improved since the North decided to take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, and the two nations’ leaders have held two summits since April.
On Saturday, Onodera held bilateral talks with defense ministers of such countries as Britain and the Philippines in Singapore.
The minister told reporters that his British and Philippine counterparts agreed with Japan’s proposal not to ease pressure on North Korea until Pyongyang takes practical action.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, formally known as the Asian Security Summit, is sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. It has taken place every year in Singapore since 2002.
Defense officials from around 50 mainly Asian and European countries, as well as the United States, are participating in the meeting to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.