December 20, 2019 / 3:20 PM / a month ago

Pentagon chief hopeful for restarting diplomacy with North Korea, but stands ready

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to the media after the 2019 U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that he remains hopeful the United States can restart diplomacy with North Korea, as the clock ticks down to North Korea’s declared year-end deadline for new U.S. concessions in talks over its nuclear arsenal.

Tension has been rising in recent weeks as Pyongyang has conducted a series of weapons tests and waged a war of words with U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I remain hopeful that we could again get the process started again and remain on the diplomatic path,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon during a briefing.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng met U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun on Friday.

Esper also noted that along with supporting diplomats, he must “ensure the we are in a high state of readiness, prepared to fight and win, tonight if need be. And I’m confident in that.”

“We are prepared for whatever,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said during the same briefing, but declined to discuss specific intelligence.

Experts say North Korea could restart intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing suspended since 2017.

Such a test would mark a break from the detente reached with the United States last year, dash any hopes of resuming talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile programers and put the two countries back on a path of confrontation.

Reporting by Idrees Ali Doina Chiacu; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Macfie

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