A spate of reports detailing apparent efforts by North Korea to expand its nuclear arsenal are likely to put pressure on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he makes his third visit to Pyongyang later this week to flesh out the details of a plan for the North to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The White House said Monday that Pompeo would depart for Pyongyang on Thursday after media reports and research suggested that the North may not intend to fully give up its arsenal.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the U.S. and North Korea were “continuing to make progress” in their nuclear negotiations, but refused to comment on intelligence reports that Pyongyang was not adhering to its commitment to work toward denuclearizing.
Sanders characterized the ongoing talks — including a meeting a day earlier between officials from both sides — as having “great momentum for positive change,” but did not offer any details.
The U.S. State Department said Pompeo will travel to Pyongyang from Thursday to Saturday “to continue consultations and implement the forward progress” made by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit in Singapore on June 12.
Pompeo’s meeting in the North Korean capital will be his first with officials from the country since the landmark Trump-Kim summit.
The top U.S. diplomat is expected to discuss with North Korean officials concrete measures that would see Pyongyang relinquish its nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and possibly other WMD.
Trump has faced criticism for declaring that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat and has said that the talks are part of a longer-term process to rid it of its nukes.
But fresh doubts about Kim’s intentions have emerged in recent days as independent researchers and media reports detailed North Korean efforts to increase nuclear fuel production, build more missile launchers and expand a key rocket-engine manufacturing facility.
In a 1½-page joint statement signed at the June 12 summit, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump pledged to provide security guarantees for the North.
The vague statement, however, bypassed crucial details about how and when North Korea would proceed with its denuclearization pledge. It did, however, note that Pompeo and “relevant high-level” North officials will hold follow-up negotiations “at the earliest possible date” to see through the promises of the summit.
Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, said Pompeo “is under immense pressure to produce a detailed agreement.”
“The administration has made it clear to Kim Jong Un that denuclearization would have to be front-loaded, meaning CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement) may be the general long-term deal, but significant steps would have to be taken within the next 2½ years,” Cronin said.
“Without an agreement on a denuclearization road map within the next three or four months, and significant dismantlement of some high-priority capabilities, then the Trump administration will be under enormous pressure to return to ‘maximum pressure,’ deterrence, and containment,” he added.
Pompeo has twice traveled to Pyongyang in recent months, once as CIA chief and another time as secretary of state, meeting with Kim both times. After Pompeo’s third trip to Pyongyang wraps up, he will visit Japan to brief government officials on the progress of talks on the United States’ “shared commitment to the final, fully verified denuclearization” of the North, according to the State Department.
On Sunday, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said the United States has a plan that would lead to the dismantling of North’s WMD programs in just a year. Bolton said it would be to the North’s advantage to cooperate to see sanctions lifted quickly and aid from South Korea and Japan begin to flow into the country.
“We have developed a program … about really how to dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic missile programs in a year,” Bolton said. “If they have the strategic decision already made to do that, and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly.”
He said the one-year program the U.S. is proposing would cover all the North’s chemical and biological weapons, nuclear programs and ballistic missiles.
Bolton’s remarks contradicted those of Pompeo, the point man on the talks and who had earlier said that the U.S. wants North Korea to take “major” nuclear disarmament steps within the next two years — before the end of Trump’s first term in January 2021.
For its part, the North and China, its sole patron and protector, have touted a “step-by-step” and “reciprocal” approach to disarming.
Some experts have said a one-year program would be difficult, with Stanford University’s Siegfried Hecker, a leading expert on the North’s nuclear program, proposing a 10-year road map instead.
Cronin said the negotiations were “likely to be a drawn-out process requiring many meetings.”
On Monday, news website Axios reported that Trump was considering a second high-profile meeting with Kim in New York in September, when world leaders pour into the U.S. leader’s hometown for the United Nations General Assembly. Such a trip would be Kim’s first to the United States.
Asked about the report, the White House said it had no announcements to make, but Axios said the Trump administration could use the possibility of a meeting as a carrot to induce more moves on denuclearization from the North.
If there is little movement, Cronin said the U.S. may have to revert to a tougher line.
“Eventually, more pressure will be required to let Kim Jong Un know that he will not be allowed major relief from sanctions without major dismantlement,” he said, adding that the return of remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War and the destruction of additional nuclear and missile sites would be welcome developments.
Trump said after the Singapore summit that the North had promised to return the remains of fallen soldiers and destroy a key missile testing site, which it did not identify. A U.S. official later said it would be the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, which the North has used to test liquid-propellant engines for its long-range ballistic missiles.
Speculation has abounded that Pompeo will return to the U.S. with the remains of soldiers killed decades ago in the 1950-1953 conflict.