WASHINGTON/SEOUL – From the moment U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on Sunday, North Korean officials made clear who was in control and how little space the top U.S. diplomat would have in setting the terms of the discussion that would follow.
Pompeo was greeted on the airport tarmac by senior official Kim Yong Chol, who told him that only three people could join him in the meeting that he’d come for with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Yong Chol also made clear that Pompeo’s preferred translator wouldn’t be allowed, and his bodyguard would have to leave his weapon behind, according to a pool reporter traveling with the U.S. envoy.
“We will make — we will figure it out and make it work,” Pompeo told his greeter. He tried to shrug off the restrictions on his bodyguard, calling him a “big guy” and laughing.
The brief-but-tense scene at the start of a daylong visit to Pyongyang signaled just how hard the secretary of state must fight for even the smallest concession from Kim’s regime as he seeks to secure a deal for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons for good. Pompeo said there was agreement that Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump would hold their second summit as soon as possible, but plans for a sequel to their June meeting in Singapore already were in the works.
At least, a U.S. official traveling with Pompeo said, the visit to North Korea went better than Pompeo’s previous trip, which ended with a North Korean statement accusing him of making “gangster-like” demands.
This time, Kim was satisfied with the “productive and wonderful talks” with Pompeo, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. The North Korean leader said progress is being made in implementing the goals of the first summit, and he “expressed his gratitude to President Trump for making sincere effort to this end,” KCNA said.
“It’s a long process,” Pompeo told reporters Monday. “We made significant progress. We’ll continue to make significant progress and we are further along in making that progress than any administration in an awfully long time.”
But, as Pompeo made his way back to Washington after three days of talks in Tokyo, Pyongyang, Seoul and Beijing, it was unclear what had been accomplished.
The secretary of state said the two sides were “pretty close” to deciding on a time and place for the second summit, declining to provide details. He said that Kim invited inspectors to the Punggye-ri test facility, the site of all six of the regime’s nuclear blasts. That site was dismantled in May before a crowd of journalists, not nuclear experts.
Given the delicate nature of talks with North Korea, it’s possible that Pompeo and his hosts reached agreements not yet made public. It’s also possible Pompeo wants to brief Trump — they were scheduled to have lunch on Tuesday — before any announcements are made. But what is known appears marginal.
In Seoul, Pompeo told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Kim had agreed to have another summit “as soon as possible,” according to a statement from Moon’s office. Trump said on Twitter that, “Progress made on Singapore Summit Agreements! I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim again, in the near future.” But that wasn’t an advance on comments Trump made last month in New York, when he said he wanted to meet Kim “very soon.”
Notably, Pompeo declined to comment about Yongbyon, the nuclear-fuel-production site that the U.S. wants to see closed. North Korea has shut it down in past negotiations — and then reopened it. U.S. officials also made no reference to past statements about wrapping up denuclearization by 2021, a deadline that Trump and Pompeo have since backed away from.
The U.S. and North Korea agreed to have working-level groups to intensify discussions on delivering Trump and Kim’s commitments from their Singapore summit, when the two sides promised to work toward denuclearization and improve relations.
Pompeo and Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, said another round of talks were likely before any Trump-Kim summit. But in another sign of how unpredictable the talks are, Biegun said that Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, is expected to be his counterpart in talks going forward. Yet Choe, who Biegun said is “well known,” didn’t even take part in the Pyongyang meetings on Sunday because she was traveling for meetings in Russia and China.
Given how short the visit was, Pompeo wasn’t expected to be able to resolve critical issues over getting North Korea to disarm or make much progress on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. Kim’s regime has said it wants to focus on more than just its nuclear program, and that it expects the U.S. to show some flexibility with its demands.
Regardless of the push and pull and the apparent lack of a breakthrough, it was an improvement on Pompeo’s visit three months ago, when Kim declined to meet him at all. This time Pompeo met Kim twice — once for negotiations and then for a working lunch on the bucolic grounds of the guest house where Pompeo’s staff was installed for the day.
“It’s a very nice day that promises a good future,” Kim said, “for both countries.”
One clear winner from the diplomatic back-and-forth in recent months is Kim: The North Korean leader derives enormous domestic benefit from being seen as a respected head of state meeting with a U.S. president and his top deputies, and not just the dictator of a rogue, isolated regime.
Pompeo’s trip was the latest turn in a diplomatic saga that saw Trump and Kim threaten each other with nuclear war last year only to sign a vague agreement in June to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Progress since then has been thin.
There’s no sign that North Korea is slowing down its production of nuclear fuel. In June, NBC News reported that an updated intelligence assessment concluded that North Korea was stepping up production of fuel for nuclear weapons at secret sites across the country.
That progress contradicts promises North Korea has made dating back at least to 1992, and in recent months, when Kim promised to honor all past agreements and work toward denuclearization.
Kim has “done very little, and none of what he’s done is impeding the progress of his program,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. “Here’s Kim in March promising to denuclearize and all he’s been doing is nuclearizing.”
Weakening support for U.S.-led sanctions — from countries including Russia and China, but also South Korea — has also led to a growing sense that Pompeo is spending more and more of his time just trying to keep existing restrictions in place. In Beijing, Pompeo met his Chinese counterparts to discuss maintaining sanctions, although unrelated disputes between the two countries spilled into public view and he didn’t meet with President Xi Jinping.
The challenge for the U.S. remains stark: American administrations for decades have been stymied by North Korean intransigence on its nuclear program, and the rapport between Trump and Kim hasn’t resolved that issue. A second summit in the coming weeks could boost Trump ahead of U.S. midterm elections in November, but a failure to secure any measurable commitments would undercut what the president has seen so far as a clear foreign policy strength.
A key issue highlighted by one former U.S. official who has spoken to North Korean officials in recent months is that the definition Kim’s regime has of denuclearization is far more expansive than it is for the U.S.
The U.S. says denuclearization means North Korea giving up its weapons. According to the former official, the North Korean diplomats told him that denuclearization for them refers to a process by which the U.S. also reduces its nuclear weapons, possibly worldwide.
The mystery for analysts and observers remains how much more may be going on behind the scenes than U.S. officials are admitting publicly. Trump hinted of more progress during a news conference in New York last month, and Pompeo said Monday that he would only discuss details the two sides had agreed to release.
“I would assume there are negotiations going on over specifics — somewhere there are people meeting,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If that isn’t happening, then it’s a really interesting question of what even the point of a second summit would be.”
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