WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departed Friday on a trip that will take him to North Korea, as U.S. disarmament demands are increasingly undermined by calls for sanctions relief and President Donald Trump’s eagerness for a second summit with Kim Jong Un.
Pompeo will spend less than a day on the ground in Pyongyang on Sunday meeting with Kim and seeking to flesh out U.S. expectations for his regime to denuclearize. But his hosts will be looking for U.S. flexibility on North Korean demands to improve ties and even reach a formal end to the Korean War.
The top U.S. diplomat, who has struggled to balance optimism about North Korea’s bright future with talk that Kim hasn’t done enough to merit sanctions relief, finds himself increasingly isolated, not only from rivals like Russia and China, but also from South Korea — and from his own boss.
“Pompeo goes over there with very little leverage,” said Vipin Narang, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The wind has gone out of ‘maximum pressure.'”
On this trip, Trump has tasked Pompeo with arranging a second summit with Kim, something that could provide the U.S. president with another peacemaking moment weeks before congressional elections.
En route to Japan, Pompeo told a reporter on his plane that his objective will be to “make sure that we understand what each side is truly trying to achieve,” a comment that signaled the two countries are still a long way off from detailed negotiations on verified disarmament.
Pompeo said he hopes to “develop options for both location and timing” for a second summit between the two leaders — but added that even that may not be settled when he leaves Pyongyang on Sunday afternoon.
While the U.S. insists sanctions on North Korea remain fully in place, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters in Seoul on Thursday that her government might seek exemptions from the international sanctions regime.
“Virtually every significant South Korean company has investment plans for North Korea, and they all want to get on with it yesterday rather than tomorrow,” said Kenneth Courtis, chairman of Starfort Investment Holdings, an investment, private equity and commodity group, and a former Asia vice chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
They’re not the only ones. The U.S. says China and Russia are undermining sanctions, a crucial development given their roles as the country’s chief economic lifelines.
And then there is the U.S. president.
As he did with his previous secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, Trump has undercut Pompeo’s efforts to maintain a united stance within the administration and among allies in the face of decades of North Korean intransigence. At a rally last week in West Virginia, Trump extolled the “beautiful letters” he got from the North Korean leader, saying the two men “fell in love.”
More crucially, Trump told reporters in New York last week that he didn’t need to commit to a firm timeline for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“We’re not playing the time game,” Trump said Sept. 26 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. “If it takes two years, three years or five months, doesn’t matter.”
That contradicted Pompeo’s statement earlier in the month, when he praised North and South Korea for pushing for denuclearization by 2021.
Pompeo later distanced himself from that time frame, saying the 2021 comment “wasn’t mine” and was merely a reiteration of commitments made by the leaders of North Korea and South Korea at an earlier summit. But in a meeting with reporters in June, Pompeo said he expected “major disarmament” to occur within the president’s first term.
Pompeo will begin his Asia trip by meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday. He’ll brief South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Sunday evening after arriving from Pyongyang, then make a stop to meet Chinese officials in Beijing on Monday before returning to Washington.
The Sunday stop in Pyongyang will be Pompeo’s first chance to introduce his special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, to leaders there. Pompeo had hoped to do that in August, when he appointed Biegun and announced they would travel to the country. But Trump called off the trip a day later, saying the North hadn’t made sufficient progress toward denuclearization.
The trip to Pyongyang will be Pompeo’s fourth and his first visit since July, when he spent the night and left with little to show for his journey. Kim snubbed him to visit a potato farm. Soon after the secretary of state left the country, North Korea issued a statement lambasting his “gangster-like” demands.
Despite public criticism from analysts that the U.S. has obtained little on the denuclearization front, Trump and his team point to a lack of nuclear and missile tests since late last year as signs that their strategy is working. And at his news conference last week, Trump claimed that there is more progress behind the scenes than the public recognizes. Pompeo has said the U.S. is “making the progress we need.”
Those comments led some analysts to speculate that the administration is getting private commitments from North Korea that would make it more confident about the prospects for success. In any case, they say that North Korea’s tough public statements in the past don’t necessarily mean talks have broken down.
“I would hope that the negotiating team has a solid list of deliverables that they want from the North Koreans in exchange for concrete steps,” said Jean H. Lee, director of the Wilson Center’s center for Korean history and public policy. “They’re not going to reveal that publicly.”
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have argued that there has been progress. They point to a meeting in Pyongyang between Kim and Moon, when North Korea committed to dismantling a missile-engine-testing site and raised the possibility of doing the same at its Yongbyon nuclear-enrichment facility.
That led Pompeo to project fresh hope.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll come away from that with better understandings, deeper progress, and a plan forward not only for the summit between the two leaders, but for us to continue the efforts to build out a pathway for denuclearization,” Pompeo said Wednesday.
Despite that positive outlook, there is a growing consensus among outside observers that the best the U.S. can hope for is that North Korea follows a path tread by India, which achieved nuclear weapons status in the late 1990s, but — by avoiding provocative acts since then — has become an important ally in the region.
“Donald Trump is playing into North Korea’s game plan, which is to convince the United States and the international community to accede to a permanent nuclear-armed North Korea, or agree to live with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons for a long time to come,” said Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat in South Korea.