Pence says US won’t negotiate directly with North Korea — for now

Posted at 8:20 AM, Apr 19, 2017

The United States will not be negotiating directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un anytime soon, Vice President Mike Pence told CNN in an exclusive interview.

“The only thing we need to hear from North Korea is that they are ending and ultimately dismantling their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program,” Pence said aboard the USS Ronald Reagan at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.

As a candidate, President Donald Trump said he would be willing to speak with Kim. But asked Wednesday if he envisioned direct negotiation between North Korea and the US, Pence replied, “not at this time.”

“The policy of President Trump is to marshal the support of our allies in the region — Japan, South Korea, nations around the world, and China,” Pence said.

Speaking inside the ship’s ceremonial room, the vice president spoke to CNN after addressing about 2,500 troops on the ship’s deck — something he said he’s never done before.

“Being aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, seeing these extraordinary soldiers, sailors, and Marines gives me great confidence that the United States’ presence in the region is strong and under President Trump’s leadership will be stronger still,” Pence said.

The vice president is on the second stop of a 10-day visit to the Asia-Pacific region after visiting South Korea, where he toured the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea.

Pyongyang has been a main focus of his visit and public speeches so far, during which he’s stuck fast to the US message that the “era of strategic patience is over.”

“The days of broken promises and the days of running out the clock on agreements with the wider world are over,” Pence said.

Repeated missile tests

Tensions between North Korea and its adversaries have flared recently ahead of a key holiday and amid analyst reports of a potential sixth nuclear test.

The nuclear test is yet to happen, but Pyongyang tested a missile Sunday which ended in failure. Pence would not confirm or deny to CNN whether the US used cybercapabilities to thwart it.

“I really can’t comment on the electronic and technical capabilities of our military, but we certainly would recognize that that was a failed missile test, it failed almost immediately,” he said.

Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests suggest progress is being made to achieve the country’s stated goal of developing a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the United States.

Exerting pressure

Trump’s new strategy involves engaging with North Korea’s neighbors to bring an end to their pursuit of nuclear weapons, Pence said.

“There’s no question North Korea represents the most dangerous and most immediate threat in the Asia-Pacific and President Trump is determined to confront that threat by marshaling unprecedented cooperation with allies in the region and China and the world,” Pence said.

“That kind of economic and diplomatic pressure will result we hope in the regime in Pyongyang forfeiting their ambitions, forfeiting their nuclear weapons program and join the family of nations.”

Pence pointed to reports of China turning away coal exports from North Korea as an example of the new US strategy bearing fruit.

“We’re already seeing our allies in South Korea and Japan and the wider world standing behind us, but China is taking unprecedented steps to economically isolate North Korea and given the fact that China represents more than 80% of the exports from North Korea is enormously important,” Pence said.

Trump has recently spoken highly of the Chinese President, whom he met earlier this month at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and later described as a “terrific person.”

China announced in February that it would stop accepting coal from North Korea — which accounted for a third of all official North Korean exports in 2015 — as it had already reached its import limit set by UN-imposed sanctions.

But data from China’s customs department showed the value of North Korean imports to China for the first quarter of 2017 increased 18.4% compared to the same time frame a year earlier.

USS Carl Vinson confusion

Pence also said comments from the White House on the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson Navy Strike Group were not purposefully misleading.

Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network last week he was sending an “armada” to the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, including the USS Carl Vinson.

But the strike group was actually on its way to participate in military exercises in the Indian Ocean, some 3,500 miles in the opposite direction.

A senior official with the Trump administration said the mistake was due to miscommunication.

“The point the President was making is that we’re ready. We’re ready to defend our allies in this region. We want to send an unambiguous message especially to north Korea that any attempt to use weapons of any kind against our allies in this region or American forces abroad will be defeated and will be met with overwhelming force,” Pence said.