Asia Pacific / Politics

Top U.S. diplomat to meet senior North Korean official in New York on Thursday amid denuclearization acrimony

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with the right-hand man of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Thursday in New York to discuss denuclearization, just days after Pyongyang hinted that it could resume building up its nuclear program if crippling sanctions are not lifted.

Pompeo will travel to New York with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun to meet with Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman of the North’s Central Committee, the State Department said in a statement Monday.

“The Secretary and Vice Chairman Kim will discuss making progress on all four pillars of the Singapore Summit joint statement, including achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK,” the statement said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

They are also expected to discuss a planned second summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump. That summit is likely to take place sometime next year, according to U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

Last Friday, North Korea warned that it could revive its scrapped policy of building up its nuclear arsenal if the U.S. does not remove harsh economic sanctions as part of reciprocal measures Pyongyang has demanded in the ongoing denuclearization talks.

In a statement, Kwon Jong Gun, the director of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies, said Pyongyang could revert to leader Kim Jong Un’s signature policy of pyongjin, or “parallel advance,” in which the country simultaneously pursues economic and nuclear development.

“If the U.S. keeps behaving arrogant without showing any change in its stand … the DPRK may add one thing to the state line for directing all efforts to the economic construction adopted in April and as a result, the word ‘pyongjin’ (simultaneously conducting economic construction and building up nuclear forces) may appear again and the change of the line could be seriously reconsidered,” the statement said.

In April, Kim abruptly announced he was retiring the policy of pyongjin, which is also known as byungjin. That strategy had been at the center of regime propaganda and is enshrined in the charter of the ruling Workers’ Party. In his April announcement, he also said the North was adopting a “new strategic line” that focuses on rebuilding the country’s tattered economy.

By alluding to a return to its dual-track policy, there has been speculation that the statement was merely a tactical move meant to throw Pompeo off balance ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

But Robert Carlin, a leading North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, noted on the North Korea-watching 38 North website on Monday that while the warning did not cross the line into a formal, official complaint, “it would be a mistake to interpret Kwon’s warnings as simply preparation for upcoming U.S.-DPRK meetings.”

“Perhaps even more serious, he warned that ‘such a view has already begun to appear in the DPRK,'” Carlin wrote. “Presumably, this is meant to be a reference to internal discussions, because Kwon’s was the first time that viewpoint is known to have appeared in DPRK media.”

North Korea has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. roll back punishing sanctions and issue a political declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which was halted in an armistice, as “corresponding measures” for what it claims are credible steps toward denuclearization. These steps have included a halt to all nuclear and missile tests as well as the dismantlement of its sole known nuclear site and a key missile-testing facility.

The U.S., however, has remained steadfast in its policy that sanctions will only be lifted after the North’s “complete denuclearization” has been verified.

Critics say such a move would be extremely unlikely, as Kim Jong Un views his nuclear arsenal as the only thing standing between him and regime change.

Asked in an interview Sunday if the Trump administration’s policy remained unchanged, Pompeo was clear despite the North Korean demands.

“I’m not worried about rhetoric,” Pompeo said in an interview with Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday.” “We’ve seen this as we go through negotiations. Stray voltage happens to be all around us, and we’re very focused. We know with whom we’re negotiating. We know what their positions are. And President Trump has made his position very clear: no economic relief until we have achieved our ultimate objective.”