The US and North Korea sharply diverged after two days of talks, with Pyongyang terming the US position on denuclearisation during meetings with Mike Pompeo “extremely regrettable,” hours after the secretary of state cited progress on central issues.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a statement reported by the state media outlet Korea Central News Agency, said Pompeo had put forward the same “cancerous” demands that past administrations had sought.
Trust between the two sides was now at a “dangerous stage” that could lead the country to falter in its commitment to give up nuclear weapons, KCNA said — adding that North Korea still trusts President Donald Trump.
The downbeat assessment, so different to one Pompeo had offered reporters a few hours earlier, suggested — as Korea analysts had feared — that the two sides remain far apart on their goals for talks on denuclearisation despite Pompeo’s past comments and Trump’s comments after his June meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
The top US diplomat has said that Kim had repeatedly expressed in private conversations his desire to give up nuclear weapons for good.
The statement came hours after Pompeo departed after meetings led by Kim Yong Chol, a senior aide to Kim. Pompeo’s now in Tokyo, where he will brief officials from Japan and South Korea on Sunday.
Before he left Pyongyang, Pompeo said US negotiators and their North Korean counterparts discussed the idea of a full declaration of North Korean weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, and setting a timeline for giving them up.
“These are complicated issues, but we made progress on almost all of the central issues,’’ Pompeo told reporters on the tarmac, following his third visit to North Korea. “We had productive, good-faith negotiations.”
Pompeo said that North Korea, in the “many hours of talks’’ at a walled-off guest-house outside downtown Pyongyang, reiterated its commitment to denuclearisation. Kim Yong Chol ended Pompeo’s visit on a positive note, telling the top US diplomat just before he boarded his plane, “We will produce an outcome, results.’’
For now, those results must remain in the future, and the commentary from North Korean state media underscored how daunting the task remains in achieving them. The comments are a setback for Pompeo, who had hoped that he could had off future negotiations to working groups settled on by the two sides at the latest meeting.
Despite Pompeo’s positive depiction of the events, signs had emerged that things weren’t going as well as hoped. It was unclear if Pompeo met this time with Kim Jong Un, as he had on his previous two trips to Pyongyang. And earlier in the day, he had a curiously testy exchange with Kim Yong Chol, who mused that the secretary may not have slept well the night before because of the important issues they had discussed.
“Director Kim, I slept just fine,” Pompeo responded.
Pompeo could point to no concrete achievement from the talks, aside from an agreement for the two sides to meet again around July 12 in Panmunjom, the border village between the two Koreas, to discuss returning the remains of US soldiers from the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Pompeo said North Korea had confirmed it intended to destroy a missile-engine testing facility and the two sides discussed the “modalities’’ of what that would look like. The countries also agreed to create working groups that will be overseen by Sung Kim, the US ambassador to the Philippines who’s handled some lower-level discussions, to work out what State Department spokeswoman called the “nitty gritty details’’ of future talks.
All along, however, experts had wondered how the US and North Korea would bridge differences that have bedeviled their talks for decades and only seemed exacerbated under Trump. The US has insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons for good before receiving relief from sanctions. North Korea, meanwhile, had indicated after the Singapore summit that the two sides had agreed to a synchronized, step-by-step approach by the two sides.
In the statement calling the US stance “regrettable,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman quoted by KCNA said the US is unilaterally demanding denuclearisation and trying to postpone discussion of declaring an end to the Korean War.
A failure in the talks would amount to an embarrassment for Pompeo, whom Trump tasked with leading the negotiations and who had said repeatedly that Kim Jong Un was ready to commit to something no North Korean government had delivered on in decades.
It would be worse for Trump himself. Since returning from Singapore, Trump has declared the North Korean nuclear threat over, even though the country’s leaders promised nothing in a joint declaration signed by Kim and Trump that they hadn’t agreed to many times before.
While Pompeo hailed progress at the latest talks, the KCNA commentary and the results he announced on Saturday will only add to unease that North Korea’s commitment to denuclearisation is a facade, and it has no intention of giving up its weapons.
Critics and analysts who study North Korea have argued that the country’s commitment to the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,’’ as spelled out in the joint declaration from the Singapore summit, doesn’t go as far as other promises to give up its nuclear weapons that North Korea had made — and reneged upon — many times in the past.
In recent days, intelligence reports have shown that North Korea is continuing work at a key rocket-engine facility. The US has also stopped using the catchphrase of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation’’ of North Korea that it had insisted upon happening before North Korea gets any relief from a crippling sanctions regime.
That change raised suspicion that the US was softening its demands for the country, an argument that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert had insisted on Friday wasn’t true. Nauert didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about North Korea’s latest statement.
Pompeo has bristled at the idea that the Singapore declaration was an empty promise, saying repeatedly that Kim Jong Un had assured him in private conversations he was ready to give up his nuclear arms.
But fissures have emerged in the US stance. Last week, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said North Korea could be expected to carry out the “bulk’’ of denuclearisation within a year. Yet Pompeo himself had earlier said he envisioned that occurring in about two 1/2 years, by the end of Trump’s term. Nauert later said the US wasn’t putting a timeline on the process.
Before events in Pyongyang had concluded, Nauert told reporters that Pompeo had been “very firm” in insisting that North Korea fulfills its commitment to “complete denuclearisation.” She said the two sides had also discussed the return of the remains of US troops killed during the Korean War.
Pompeo’s visit represents the highest level meeting between US and North Korean officials since Trump and Kim Jong Un held their unprecedented summit in Singapore on June 12. The secretary is under pressure to deliver a more concrete disarmament plan to flesh out the two leaders’ vague, 1-1/2 page document that provided no timetable for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
“Trump tried to sell this as a quickly achievable deal to denuclearise and now Pompeo and team are tasked with the impossible task of pushing forward on denuclearisation without a shared understanding with Pyongyang,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
Pompeo struck a cautious note while en route to Pyongyang, saying he hoped to “fill in some details” on Kim Jong Un’s commitments. Before arriving, he also said in a tweet that he hoped to achieve North Korea’s “final, fully verified denuclearisation” — raising questions whether the administration had softened its longstanding goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.”