In a surprise announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday canceled a planned visit to North Korea by the United States’ top diplomat next week just a day after it was announced, citing insufficient progress in negotiations for Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons.
“I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump said in the first of a series of posts to Twitter.
The U.S. president also put part of the blame on China, suggesting talks with Pyongyang could be on hold until after Washington resolved its trade dispute with Beijing.
“Additionally, because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were (despite the UN Sanctions which are in place),” he wrote.
The U.S. and China have been locked in a trade dispute for months, with each side ratcheting up tariffs on imports from the other country in what may be the opening salvos of a trade war.
The State Department never confirmed details of the planned trip, but it had been expected that Pompeo would be in Pyongyang for at least several hours Monday, media reports quoting several diplomatic sources familiar with the plan said.
The acknowledgment of the stalled process was a dramatic shift of tone for Trump, who had previously hailed his June summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a success, claiming that the North Korean nuclear threat was over.
Although Trump portrayed the summit as a triumph, skeptics have questioned this assumption, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilaterally relinquishing its nuclear weapons, made few tangible commitments in a vaguely worded joint statement released after the meeting.
On Thursday, Pompeo announced the naming of Steve Biegun, a former Ford Motor Co. executive and veteran Republican foreign policy hand, as the new top envoy to North Korea. He said the pair would visit the country next week, part of a gambit to inject the stalled diplomatic process with fresh momentum.
White House officials declined to specify what prompted Trump to call off Pompeo’s trip or what had changed since the president’s positive assessments of North Korea’s progress just days ago.
Trump made the decision to cancel the visit Friday morning during a meeting with Pompeo, Biegun, chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton, who joined by phone. Andrew Kim, the head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, as well as U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, who has led working-level talks, were also seen in pictures posted to social media by the White House.
But CNN, quoting a senior diplomatic source, said that State Department officials were “briefing allies’ embassies about their objectives for the trip like 10 minutes before” it was called off.
Pompeo told Foreign Minister Taro Kono over the phone that the trip had been canceled, Kyodo News quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying. Pompeo had originally planned to stop in Japan for talks with Kono and possibly with visiting South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha early next week, according to Japanese government sources.
The visit to the North would have been Pompeo’s fourth. He met with the North Korean leader twice prior to the Trump-Kim summit, but did not meet with him on his third visit, which Pyongyang characterized as “regrettable.” After those talks, it accused Washington of making “gangster-like” demands and attempting to unilaterally force Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
At a news conference announcing the appointment, Biegun reiterated the White House’s stance that this process will have to begin with Kim handing over his nukes.
The North has bristled at this suggestion, and observers have pointed out that Kim and Trump’s 1½-page joint statement in Singapore agreed only to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees.”
Instead, North Korea has pushed for a “phased, synchronized” approach to denuclearizing. It has also urged the U.S. to end what it calls Washington’s “hostile policy” by declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice and not a formal peace treaty. Speculation had grown that both countries were examining the possibility of a U.S.-led declaration in exchange for a list of the North’s secret nuclear test sites as well as information about its nuclear warheads.
“There was some optimism that North Korea was now eager to initiate a ‘data declaration for peace declaration’ exchange in which Pyongyang would provide extensive information on its nuclear programs and arsenal in return for a multilateral proclamation ending the Korean War,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea now with the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, wrote Friday on Twitter.
“Those hopes are dashed, at least for now,” he added.
In the more than two months since the Singapore summit, a spate of revelations have put a damper on Trump’s claims that he has resolved the nuclear issue.
Earlier this week, a report by North Korean-monitoring group 38 North showed that Pyongyang had appeared to halt dismantling work at a key missile engine testing site that Trump said in Singapore that it had promised to destroy. On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, said in a report that it has not found any indication that North Korea has stopped its nuclear activities — including those at alleged secret sites.
Last month, media reports revealed that the North was secretly operating a suspected uranium enrichment facility, called Kangson. And in Senate testimony later in the month, Pompeo acknowledged that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons.
Still, while the U.S. has said that its patience is not unlimited and that it needs to see some progress from North Korea, the State Department admitted Thursday that the complex negotiations are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
“I know you all want to speed up these things,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in response to a question about the negotiations’ progress. “I know you want it to happen overnight. But this thing, this issue, is going to take some time, and we’ve been very clear about that. We’ve been very upfront about how this will take some time.”
Trump appeared to hold out hope that the canceled talks could be rescheduled for sometime soon, while also touting the personal ties he claims to have made with Kim.
“Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved,” he wrote on Twitter. “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in the Koreas, called the move to cancel the summit “pretty consistent with what we’ve seen from President Trump since before the Singapore summit.”
In May, the U.S. leader abruptly canceled the Singapore summit with Kim scheduled for two weeks later, saying that a meeting was “inappropriate” at the time. Then, just days later on June 1, he decided to meet Kim after all.
“He thinks he can maintain leverage and throw the North Koreans off balance by keeping a positive tone even while expressing discontent,” Oba said.
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