Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday indicated that a recent halt in North Korean nuclear and missile testing may signal an opportunity for talks, though Pentagon officials cautioned that it is too soon to read into the pause.
“So long as they stop testing, stop developing, they don’t export their weapons, there would be opportunity for talks,” Mattis said on a military plane en route to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, according to Reuters.
North Korea has not undertaken a missile or nuclear test for two months. The pause follows 15 missile tests and one hydrogen bomb explosion within nine months.
Mattis did not give any reasons for why North Korea hadn’t recently undertaken tests, but said the Pentagon was closely watching the country, Reuters reported.
U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which Mattis was set to visit, are in charge of tracking and possibly intercepting foreign missiles.
Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White, however, said that “it's perilous to predict anything about what North Korea does or doesn't do, but we're continuing to monitor the situation.”
“I wouldn’t speculate on what North Korea’s activities are or aren’t,” White told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
“Our policy remains to have the verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It’s a diplomatic effort, we’ll continue to support our diplomats and ensure that they can negotiate from a position of strength,” she said.
Mattis has long maintained that a diplomatic solution is the best option in dealing with Pyongyang, but military action remains on the table if needed.
President Trump echoed Mattis's stance while visiting South Korea as part of a 12-day trip to Asia last week, urging North Korea to “make a deal,” while also warning Pyongyang to “not underestimate us” and “not try us.”
Trump has previously called negotiations with the isolated nation a waste of time.
China meanwhile, has proposed that to start peace negotiations, North Korea could stop its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea stopping regular military drills in the region.
But the “freeze-for-freeze” route seems unlikely as Trump this week rejected that idea, The Associated Press reported.
"President Xi recognizes that a nuclear North Korea is a grave threat to China, and we agreed that we would not accept a so-called freeze-for-freeze agreement like those that have consistently failed in the past,” Trump said during a briefing on Wednesday.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman later said the dual suspension is “the most feasible, fair and sensible plan in the present situation.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the difference of opinion during the White House press briefing Thursday.
“Both sides made their position clear,” Sanders told reporters. “They're different, but we agree that they're going to be different positions and therefore it's not going to move forward.”
The Defense Department also this week wrapped up a three-aircraft carrier group exercise in the Sea of Japan, and began a 10-day exercise with Japanese maritime forces.
White said the latest exercise was “long planned” and about “reassuring our partners and our allies.”