Asia Pacific / Politics

Pompeo says U.S.-North Korea relationship 'in a better place' after letters

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday confirmed that President Donald Trump had sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, voicing hopes of a quick restart to denuclearization talks.

“I am hopeful that this will provide a good foundation for us to begin to continue the important discussions with the North Koreans to denuclearize the peninsula,” Pompeo said.

A report released Sunday by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Kim had received an “excellent” letter from Trump, just days before the U.S. leader travels to Asia for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka and then on to South Korea for meetings with President Moon Jae-in.

Kim “said with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content,” KCNA said in a brief dispatch without revealing any details, including when the “personal letter” was delivered.

“Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content,” the report when on, appearing to tease what could be an offer from Trump or a moderation in Washington’s hard-line stance that Pyongyang relinquish its nuclear arsenal before crushing economic sanctions are relaxed.

On Monday, South Korea’s presidential Blue House confirmed that Trump would meet Moon, saying the U.S. president will make a two-day trip to Seoul starting Saturday. The pair were scheduled to hold summit talks focusing on the North’s denuclearization the following day.

During his visit to Seoul, Trump may also make his first visit to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas on Sunday after meeting with Moon, a South Korean government official confirmed.

In response to speculation that Trump and the leaders of the two Koreas could meet at the border truce village of Panmunjom, a Blue House official said there was no plan for that.

The White House was in final preparations to make the visit — Trump’s earlier attempt during a visit to South Korea had been called off because of bad weather — Kyodo News and the Asahi Shimbun both reported, citing diplomatic sources. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the reports.

Following the first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore last June, and another one in Hanoi in February, U.S. talks with the North over its nuclear arsenal hit a wall due to major differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.

U.S. officials have said that Washington has no preconditions for new talks but that progress would require meaningful and verifiable steps by Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Pompeo was mum on the contents of Trump’s letter but said that the United States has been working to lay foundations for discussions since the Hanoi summit’s abrupt end.

“We think we’re in a better place,” he said

Trump and Kim have in recent months exchanged correspondence, with Trump boasting of a “beautiful” letter he received on the eve of the Singapore summit’s one-year anniversary.

Speaking about that letter earlier this month, South Korea’s Moon said there was “a very interesting part that President Trump did not announce.”

News of the letter to Kim also comes in the wake of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first-ever visit as president to North Korea. Kim’s meeting with Xi, together with the correspondence with Trump, has raised expectations that the nuclear talks’ deadlock might soon be broken.

Asked if working-level discussions between the countries would begin soon, Pompeo said: “I think the remarks you saw out of North Korea this morning suggest that may well be a very good possibility. We’re ready to go, we’re literally prepared to go at a moment’s notice if the North Koreans indicate that they’re prepared for those discussions.”

Speculation has also grown that Trump could receive a message on denuclearization from Xi during the two leaders’ meeting on the sidelines of the Osaka G20 summit on Friday and Saturday.

The recent moves have also added momentum for a third Kim-Trump summit, said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.

“I think a third summit is definitely on the cards, but both sides will need to be assured that it won’t end in a stalemate as with Hanoi,” O’Neil said.

He said Kim’s letter to Trump probably discussed the possibility of the North putting a range of nuclear-related sites on the table, while Trump’s letter almost certainly would have signaled sanctions relief if Pyongyang demonstrates good faith on nuclear facilities as well as a package of security assurances and economic aid once North Korean commitments begin to be implemented.

Still, O’Neil said he did not believe “any of the fundamentals have changed.”

“North Korea will not surrender its nuclear and missile programs,” he said.

“Trump wants the problem ‘solved’ so he can declare victory, and Moon Jae-in understands both of these realities but is stuck domestically and covets a legacy as the South Korean president who delivered on his mentor’s promise of a peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” he added, referring to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.