Asia Pacific / Politics

Trump backs off timetable for North Korean denuclearization as top U.S. diplomat announces trip to Pyongyang next month

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In the latest twist in Donald Trump’s shifting strategy on North Korea, the U.S. president on Wednesday backed off a set timetable for Pyongyang to denuclearize, ahead of a planned visit next month to the North Korean capital by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“I think we’re really going to do something that’s going to be very important, but we’re not playing the time game” with North Korea, Trump said during a televised news conference in New York. “If it takes two years, three years or five months — doesn’t matter.”

Trump’s comments marked a stark contrast with a claim a week ago by Pompeo, who said that negotiations would lead to the “rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021,” before the end of Trump’s first term.

The administration had earlier given the North a one-year deadline to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

Pompeo met North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in New York on Wednesday and agreed to travel to Pyongyang in October as the two sides continue to prepare for a possible second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His visit to Pyongyang will be his fourth this year.

“Much work remains, but we will continue to move forward,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

Trump has praised the North Korean leader, while promoting a second summit with him that the U.S. president said would be announced “in the very near future.” He said that despite tough U.S. sanctions against the North staying in place, he believes that Kim wants to get a deal done because of their close ties.

“We have a very good relationship. He likes me, I like him, we get along,” Trump said. “He wants to make a deal and I’d like to make a deal.”

At the news conference, the U.S. leader also made the stunning claim that former President Barack Obama told Trump that Obama was “very close” to going to war with the North.

“If I wasn’t elected,” Trump said, “you’d be in a war.”

He did not offer any evidence to support this assertion.

Trump claimed earlier that North Korea has made more progress toward denuclearization than is publicly understood, saying unreported actions were taking place “behind the scenes.”

“Many things are happening behind the scenes — away from the media, which nobody knows — but they are happening nevertheless and they are happening in a very positive way,” he said. “So I think you will have some very good news coming from North Korea in the coming months and years.”

Washington’s denuclearization talks with Pyongyang have hit a wall in the more than three months since Trump’s landmark June summit in Singapore with Kim, where the North Korean leader agreed to a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.

But Trump’s openness to another meeting with Kim and the results of last week’s inter-Korean summit — where the North Korean leader served up a flurry of tantalizing denuclearization proposals that are contingent on “corresponding measures” by the U.S. — could kick-start the process.

Those proposals included an agreement by Pyongyang to “permanently” decommission a key missile facility under the watch of “experts from relevant countries” and the possibility of shuttering its Nyongbyon nuclear complex in a deal with the U.S.

Pompeo, in a television interview with CBS News on Wednesday, said he believed that North Korea would allow international inspectors to verify any commitments.

“We’re not going to buy a pig in a poke,” he said.

“We’re going to get this right, we’re going to deliver on this commitment that Chairman Kim has made to the world, and then there’s going to be a brighter future for the North Korean people, and there will be a more peaceful world.”

As for the second summit, Pompeo told “CBS This Morning” earlier that U.S. officials were working “to make sure we get the conditions right” for such a meeting. He said any future summit could happen in October, but more likely after that.

Trump spoke of “a bold and new push for peace” with the North during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, in a hint at the direction his administration is heading as he gears up for a second summit.

This push could include a political declaration by the U.S. that ends the Korean War, a move that would be a step ahead of a formal peace treaty. Fighting in the 1950-53 war was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.

Critics, however, say that even with a second summit, the North is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.

“I think we need to question our basic assumptions going forward,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea expert and director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization. “First and foremost is the assumption that North Korea is going to carry out unilateral denuclearization. They did not agree to that at the Singapore summit and they are pushing a peace regime as a way forward as a way of improving relations with the U.S. and getting sanctions relief without having to give up their nuclear program.”

Regardless, Gause said moving in a phased way toward a peace regime makes sense.

“It ensures that North Korea is not testing its nuclear program and missile programs and is not conducting provocations in the region,” he said. Over time, he added, as trust is built up on both sides and negotiations proceed, ways for dismantling the nuclear program toward the back end of the process could be further explored.

“North Korea with an arrested nuclear program kept under wraps is better than a North Korea actively testing and improving its program in the midst of a brinksmanship strategy that raises tensions on the peninsula and in the region,” Gause said.