Asia Pacific / Politics

Trump calls statement with North Korea’s Kim ‘a contract,’ suggests China may be interfering in nuclear talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday referred to a vague joint statement agreed to at his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month as a “contract,” saying he believed Kim would “honor” the agreement while also pointing a finger at China for “exerting negative pressure.”

“I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake,” the Trump wrote on Twitter. “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!”

However, at the Singapore summit, North Korea did not specifically itself agree to denuclearize. Rather, the document that Kim and Trump signed said that Pyongyang was committed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — language that some observers say gives it room to maneuver for a phased, quid pro quo approach with the U.S.

Trump’s characterization of the 1½ page joint statement as a contract also raised eyebrows, with some experts saying the U.S. president appeared to be trying to shift the blame for the slow progress with the North Koreans on China.

“Trump is clearly ‘telegraphing’ to the North Koreans that there is distance between China and the United States, that there’s ‘running room’ between the two of us,” Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, said during a call with reporters organized by 38 North, a North Korea-watching website and project of the Stimson Center, a U.S. think tank.

“The North Koreans are going to use that to their advantage. That’s just predictable. They’re going to constantly play off the U.S. against China, and so that doesn’t strengthen our position; it weakens our position with the North Koreans.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, responding to similar comments from U.S. lawmakers over the weekend, said that blaming Beijing for wanting to trip up U.S.-North Korea talks is “completely unreasonable.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up two days of talks with North Korean officials in Pyongyang on Saturday, saying that the denuclearization talks, while tough, had produced some results.

North Korea, however, issued a harsh characterization of the negotiations, accusing the U.S. in a statement from the Foreign Ministry of making “gangster-like” demands and raising questions about future talks as U.S. officials seek to persuade the country to relinquish its nuclear weapons program.

Robert Gallucci, who led the U.S in direct talks with North Korea beginning in mid-1993, said that although the seemingly harsh rhetoric out of Pyongyang contrasted with Washington’s view of the talks, he did not believe it would be a barrier to continued talks.

“The statement was to my ear, in a way, much more gentle and careful than I have heard from the North Koreans on any number of occasions over more than two decades,” Gallucci said during the call with reporters organized by 38 North.

Pompeo has reportedly established a working group inside the State Department on ways to achieve denuclearization of North Korea, but that group does not include officials from the Pyongyang side, according to the U.S.

The launch of the U.S. working group suggests that Pyongyang may not have agreed to launch a joint panel with Washington due to a gap between the two sides over measures to advance denuclearization, Kyodo News reported Tuesday, citing State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

According to the State Department, the working group includes Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Ben Purser, deputy assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, and assists Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, who has led the working-level talks with North Korea.

Gallucci and Wit, both former nuclear negotiators, have suggested that the working groups be overseen by a single, seasoned negotiator, who could give the talks more direction.

“I know that Secretary Pompeo has talked about establishing some working groups and they’ll start meeting,” said 38 North’s Wit. “But I think we may need a much more robust process, with a full-time, more senior … negotiator, who would supervise the working groups and try to move the process forward.”

Talks with the North have been led by Pompeo since Joseph Yun, the former point man on U.S.-North Korean relations at the State Department, retired in March.

In addition to that, Wit said that Pompeo “needs to be involved frequently, if not constantly.”

He cited the example of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s role in the Iran nuclear deal. Kerry conducted shuttle diplomacy in a bid to seal a deal, and spent a considerable amount of time in Europe for those negotiations.

“We need to be seriously considering that. Otherwise, flying into Pyongyang, having two days of meetings, and having some staff-level working group just isn’t going to cut it.”

Still, Gallucci and Wit both agreed that the North’s statement following the talks with Pompeo had provided a glimmer of hope, an opinion they said ran contrary to many media reports. Specifically, Wit noted the North’s “continued cultivation of the good relationship that came out of Singapore” with Trump. The North’s statement was noticeably careful not to target or blame the mercurial U.S. leader for the “regretful” talks.

That statement also noted a number of “simultaneous actions” that could help build trust between the two countries, including multilateral exchanges, working toward a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and “dismantling the test ground of high thrust engine to make a physical verification of the suspension of” intercontinental ballistic missile production “as part of denuclearization steps.”

Asked about the possibility of Trump making a deal that would eliminate long-range missiles that threaten the United States as part of these first steps, Wit and Gallucci both said such a move would be a welcome step — despite concerns from U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.

“I recognize that in both Seoul and in Tokyo there’s just a little bit of concern that the United States will be satisfied once it is no longer targetable by the North Koreans with an ICBM, and we will live happily, as we did before 2017, with simply our allies, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, being vulnerable to the North Koreans,” Gallucci said.

“I would like to think that is not what’s on American minds, the president and the secretary of state,” he added.

Wit agreed, saying “you’ve got to start somewhere.”

“I think we should take them up on that offer, the minute we hang up from the phone,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean that the process would stop at ICBMs; it could keep going further down the food chain to, maybe, some regional missiles that can reach Japan.”