U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that he will not put a timeline on negotiations with North Korea to rid it of its nuclear weapons, an apparent reversal of earlier remarks that the White House would seek “major disarmament” by Pyongyang by January 2021, the end of President Donald Trump’s first term.
Pompeo said in an interview reported Monday that the administration would regularly assess the regime’s seriousness about abandoning its nuclear program, a pledge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made to Trump at their historic June 12 summit in Singapore.
“I am not going to put a timeline on it, whether that’s two months, six months, we are committed to moving forward in an expeditious moment to see if we can achieve what both leaders set out to do,” Pompeo said in the interview conducted Sunday.
The top U.S. diplomat, who has been charged with handling the negotiating process in the wake of the summit, said he would “constantly reassess” whether enough progress is being made to continue talks.
“We hope that we will have an ongoing process of making progress,” he said.
The remarks run counter to a statement by Pompeo following the Kim-Trump summit in which he said the White House was “hopeful” that the negotiations could lead to the North relinquishing its nuclear arsenal in “the next 2½ years.”
In a 1½ page joint statement signed at the Singapore talks, the North Korean leader “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump pledged to provide security guarantees for the North.
Media reports quoting a senior administration official a day earlier said that Pompeo was seeking an early meeting with his North Korean counterparts to begin discussions about the next steps. But his refusal to put a timeline on North Korean denuclearization contrasted sharply with comments from a senior Defense Department official quoted ahead of a trip by defense chief Jim Mattis to Asia.
“I think the way we are going to approach North Korea is we are going to have some data points pretty soon if they are operating in good faith or not,” the official was quoted as saying. “Secretary Pompeo has talked about an early engagement with North Korea. That’s going to be worked on. We’ll be able to present them with, my words, we’ll know pretty soon if they are going to operate in good faith.”
The senior defense official added that: “There will be specific asks and there will be a specific timeline when we do present the North Koreans with our concept of what implementation of the summit agreement looks like.”
On Monday, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White walked those comments back in a pair of tweets.
“DoD remains committed to supporting the ongoing diplomatic process with the DPRK, of which there is no specific timeline,” White wrote.
“Any statements by DoD personnel regarding the DPRK are solely in reference to the military aspects of the negotiations,” she added, noting the “indefinite suspension of major exercises or logistical support for the dignified transfer of remains.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Washington is seeking the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program in as short a time as possible. However, Pyongyang has insisted on a “phased and synchronous” process involving concessions from the United States.
In a sign that the U.S. might be leaning toward a more gradual approach, Trump has ordered the halt of a major joint military exercise with South Korea, as well as two smaller training drills.