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Mattis goes silent on North Korea ahead of Trump-Kim meeting

MUSCAT, March 11 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday he will not publicly discuss issues related to North Korea, deferring to diplomats and the White House, ahead of a proposed meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un.

Mattis said the situation was simply too sensitive for comment by officials in places such as the Pentagon, which is not directly involved in the diplomatic outreach.

"I do not want to talk about Korea at all. I will leave it to those who are leading the effort," Mattis told reporters during a flight to Oman.

"Because it's that delicate, when you get into a position like this. The potential for misunderstanding remains very high or goes higher."

After months of escalating tension over North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile programs, Trump decided on Thursday to agree to meet with North Korea's leader and become the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

On Saturday, Trump said his meeting could fizzle without an agreement or it could result in "the greatest deal for the world" to ease nuclear tensions between the two countries.

"Who knows what's going to happen?" said Trump.

Trump's move marked a sharp departure from 60 years of largely arms-length U.S. diplomacy when it comes to North Korea, not to mention his own previous rhetoric against Pyongyang.

No venue or date has been announced for the meeting, which is expected to be held by the end of May.

Mattis did not offer any clarity on his expectations, deferring to the State Department, the White House National Security Staff and Trump himself.

"Right now every word is going to be nuanced and parsed apart across different cultures, at different times of the day, in different context," he said.

"And right now, I want a very straight line from those actually responsible, not from those of us in a supporting or background role."

A White House official said on Friday Trump remained committed to a meeting based on conditions laid out by South Korea: that Kim is committed to denuclearization, will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests, and understands that U.S.-South Korean military exercises must continue.

The U.S.-South Korean exercises are expected to be held in the coming weeks, raising questions about how the Pentagon would portray them.

"I'm sure the White House and the Department of State will be keeping you very well informed," Mattis said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Jason Neely)