No sign of North Korea dismantling nuclear weapons programme

The US defence secretary, James Mattis, has said he is unaware of any steps taken by North Korea towards dismantling its nuclear weapons programme since the Singapore summit and does not expect any in the immediate future.

Mattis was speaking to reporters amid confusion over the diplomatic follow-up to last week’s summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Immediately after the meeting Trump claimed that North Korea had begun the destruction of a missile engine testing site or would begin as soon as Kim returned from the summit. In return Trump ordered the suspension of military exercises with South Korea, a longstanding demand of the Pyongyang regime. This week the Pentagon confirmed that planning for the next scheduled exercises in August had halted.

However, asked on Wednesday if he could “put his finger on” any steps North Korea had taken to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon: “No, I’m not aware of that.”

He added: “The detailed negotiations have not begun. I wouldn’t expect that at this point.”

After the Singapore meeting Trump said that his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton, would take part in follow-up meetings with North Korean officials this week to “go into the details” of the denuclearisation agreement the president believed he had struck with Kim.

Both Trump and Pompeo predicted that follow-on talks with North Korean officials would take place in the week after the 12 June summit.

“We’re getting together next week to go into the details,” Trump told a post-summit press conference in Singapore.

“Next week, with John Bolton and our entire team, to go over the details and to get this stuff done.”

The next day Pompeo confirmed: “I will be the person who takes the role of driving this process forward.

“I don’t know exactly what the timing will be for our next conversation with North Korea,” the secretary of state said. “I would anticipate it will be fairly quickly after we return to our home countries. I don’t know exactly what form that will take but I’m very confident that by some time in the next week or so we will begin the engagement.”

That engagement has not, so far, occurred. The state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday that although the US had been in touch with Pyongyang there was nothing to announce on Pompeo’s travel plans.

Bolton said on Wednesday that “Pompeo and others” would be meeting North Korean counterparts, adding “we’ll find out soon enough whether they’ve made this strategic decision”.

“They’ve said they want complete denuclearisation and now we’ll have to talk about how to achieve that and I think you will see diplomatic engagement proceed very quickly,” Bolton told Fox News, but gave no details on timing.

“I think there is a mad scramble right now,” said Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

He said US officials had tried and failed to persuade the North Koreans to include language in the joint statement in Singapore committing to “complete, verifiable and irreversible” disarmament with a timetable for carrying it out by 2020.

“They did not get those but Trump went along with the meeting anyway, which means he cared more about the meeting than about the substance,” Cha said.

“Even though there is no timeline, there is a de facto one now. Pompeo has to get something before August to justify suspending the [military] exercises.”

Another element of the Singapore joint statement was a North Korean promise to hand over remains of US soldiers, marines and airmen still unaccounted for since the 1950-53 Korean war. It said that those remains that Pyongyang has already identified as US servicemen, thought be number about 200, would be repatriated at once.

“They’re giving a commitment, they’re starting it immediately, to recover their remains,” Trump said.

Recovery and repatriation has been happening on and off for decades. So far the remains of 334 servicemen have been identified from the bones and personal effects handed over by Pyongyang, and about 5,000 more are thought to be scattered around North Korean territory.

US military officials said on Wednesday that the UN Command, the US-led coalition that fought the war, was planning to oversee the repatriation of more remains which could happen in the next few days.

Mattis said the details had yet to be agreed. “Those discussions are also ongoing right now, but I don’t have any updates for you,” he told reporters. “I know that we’re engaged on it.”