By Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday said that Tokyo and Washington stood firm in their common goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, including all its ballistic missiles.
“Our objective remains the complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Mattis said at a press briefing after meeting Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onodera in Tokyo.
Mattis is the most senior U.S. administration official to visit Japan since President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore this month.
At that meeting Kim repeated Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, falling short of the complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation that Japan, the U.S and other countries had earlier pressed.
Trump in return agreed to halt large scale military drills with neighbouring South Korea during denuclearisation talks with North Korea.
On Thursday in Seoul Mattis, who is on the last stop of a trip to Asia that also included China and South Korea, defended Trump’s decision to halt “war games,” saying it would help diplomats negotiate.
He also assured the South Korean government of an “ironclad” commitment to its security, including keeping U.S. troop levels there of around 28,500 soldiers.
In Tokyo Mattis assured Japan that their military alliance remained firm during negotiations with Pyongyang.
“We’re in the midst of very unprecedented negotiations right now with North Korea. But in this dynamic time, the longstanding alliance between Japan and the United States stands firm,” he said.
Japan, which hosts some 50,000 U.S. military personnel, including the biggest overseas concentration of U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy carrier strike group, relies on the Washington for its defence.
At the start of his meeting with Onodera on Friday, Mattis offered solidarity with Japan over Japanese abductees being held in North Korea.
Mattis noted that Japan’s Onodera was wearing a lapel pin worn in remembrance of the Japanese abducted by North Korea to train its spies.
“I note with respect the blue lapel pin you wear, and we’re with you,” Mattis said, as he sat down with Onodera for talks at the defence ministry in Tokyo.
Japan has been pressing the United States to make the issue of the abductees a priority in its talks with North Korea. U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty hosted family members of Japanese abductees at his residence in Tokyo in April and regularly wears the pin.
Japan, which may seek direct talks with North Korea to discuss the return of any remaining abductees kidnapped during the 1970s and 1980s, has said it will not provide any economic aid to Pyongyang until the issue is resolved and normal diplomatic relations have been established.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry)