Asia Pacific / Politics

Top U.S. diplomat Mike Pompeo says he's still in charge of North Korea talks

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday he remained in charge of negotiating with North Korea despite the regime’s demands to exclude him, as he voiced guarded hope with Japan on securing a deal.

Pompeo led four-way talks in Washington of the U.S. and Japanese foreign affairs and defense chiefs, the latest in a flurry of major meetings scheduled between the close allies.

Amid a standstill with North Korea, Pompeo brushed aside an angry statement this week in which Pyongyang called the top U.S. diplomat “reckless” and immature and demanded that he be removed from future negotiations.

Pompeo is believed to have encouraged Trump, who has admitted to having a soft spot for Kim Jong Un, to hold firm with North Korea’s young authoritarian leader during a summit in February in Hanoi that ended in deadlock.

“Nothing’s changed. We’re continuing to work to negotiate. I’m still in charge of the team,” Pompeo told a joint news conference, while adding that Trump is “obviously in charge of the overall effort.”

Pompeo, who traveled four times last year to Pyongyang as he eased once soaring tensions, said he was still hopeful for an agreement that would solidify Kim’s promises to give up the nuclear arsenal which his dynasty has built over decades.

“I’m convinced we still have a real opportunity to achieve that outcome and our diplomatic team will continue to remain in the lead,” Pompeo said.

Trump has repeatedly voiced admiration for Kim and last month blocked the imposition of tough new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, saying he wanted to preserve the relationship despite Pompeo’s vow to keep up maximum pressure.

Japan, which closely aligns its foreign policy with the United States, has publicly backed Trump but is seen as deeply cautious.

Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe built his political career campaigning for tough action on North Korea over its abductions of Japanese civilians in the 1970s and 1980s to train the regime’s spies.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono nonetheless reiterated after the talks in Washington that Abe was willing to meet Kim “if there is a chance.”

“Japan is ready to normalize its relationship with North Korea when these missile, nuclear and abduction issues are taken care of,” Kono said.

Abe will visit Washington next week to meet Trump, with whom he has built a friendly rapport. Trump and his wife, Melania, will then head to Japan next month as the first state guests after Crown Prince Naruhito is enthroned as emperor.

Japan will also hold a summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Osaka in June, although Trump has not yet confirmed his attendance.

Despite Pompeo’s comments, the future of U.S. engagement with North Korea has appeared to be in limbo since the summit, with no sign of direct contact between the two sides.

On Thursday, the North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.S. affairs said North Korea no longer wanted to deal with Pompeo and he should be replaced in talks by someone more mature.

That statement came hours after North Korea announced its first weapons test since a second summit between Trump and Kim broke down in February.

Experts said the North Korean statement appeared aimed at dividing Trump from senior officials in the hope of exacting concessions, particularly relief from punishing sanctions.

U.S. officials have played down the test of what North Korea has described as a “tactical” weapon, implying a short-range system rather than the ballistic missiles seen as a threat to the United States.

“I don’t have the details; I just haven’t been chasing it, there’s been a few other priorities, so that’d give you kind of a sense of where it ranks,” U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said before talks at the Pentagon with Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya.

Kim warned last week that the summit breakdown risked reviving tensions and said he was only interested in meeting Trump again if Washington showed more flexibility. He gave a year-end deadline for a change in attitude.

Trump has said he is open to another summit with Kim, but his national security adviser, John Bolton, told Bloomberg News on Wednesday there first needed to be “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.”