Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday the current lull in North Korea's nuclear and missile tests -- if extended -- could be an "opportunity" for peace talks with the regime of Kim Jong-un.
"So long as they stop testing, stop developing, they don't export their weapons -- there would be opportunity for talks," Mattis said.
He made the comments to reporters on his plane en route to Colorado for meetings with the commanders of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, on homeland and anti-missile defense.
Mattis declined to speculate on why North Korea has not conducted nuclear or missile tests for the past two months. When asked if he had an opinion, he said, "Let me know when you figure it out."
Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have consistently said that diplomacy led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, backed up by the credible threat of military force, is the first priority in dealing with North Korea.
Pentagon officials said Mattis' remarks should not be seen as laying the groundwork for negotiations in the near future if the lull in North Korean launches continues.
Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana White said it's too soon to read anything into the pause.
"I think it's perilous to predict anything about what North Korea does or doesn't do," White said, "but we're continuing to monitor the situation."
President Donald Trump has fluctuated on North Korea from bellicose rhetoric to his statement in South Korea last week that he wanted to "make a deal."
However, Trump said he is against the "freeze for freeze" proposal backed by China and Russia in which the U.S. and South Korea would cease military exercises in exchange for a freeze by North Korea on nuclear and missile tests.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, appeared to contradict Trump on Thursday, saying that freeze-for-freeze is still an option.
"Suspension-for-suspension is the most realistic, viable and reasonable solution in the current situation," Geng said at a Beijing news conference. "I stress that it's only the first step, not the end."
"For forward-deployed forces, exercises are a critical component of readiness," McKenzie said. "They do, in fact, assure our partners. They're not necessarily aimed at anyone. But they also, I think, exercise a powerful deterring effect by the fact that they're occurring."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.