Secretary of state Mike Pompeo will travel to North Korea on July 5 to continue talks with Kim Jong-un’s government on nuclear disarmament, the White House said Monday, even as new questions have been raised about Kim’s intentions.
Mr Pompeo’s visit follows the historic summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in June. The secretary of state, who will be making his third trip to North Korea, will seek answers after independent researchers and media organisations detailed North Korean efforts to increase fuel production, build more missile launchers and expand a key rocket-engine manufacturing facility.
The visit represents the highest-level exchange between the two sides since Mr Trump and Kim met in Singapore and agreed to work toward “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” without establishing a framework or guideposts for achieving that goal. Trump administration officials have deflected criticism of the agreement, describing it as the first step in a negotiated process to persuade Kim to give up his arsenal.
“This meeting is absolutely critical,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “One can argue that the North Koreans are doing all of this to get maximum concessions out of the United States if and when they decide to give up their nuclear program. But at some point they have to sit down and actually produce something. Maybe this trip, but I’m not holding my breath.”
The State Department said Mr Pompeo’s travel to Pyongyang on July 5 to 7 will be followed by a stop in Tokyo, where he “will meet with Japanese and South Korean leaders to discuss our shared commitment to the final, fully verified denuclearisation” of North Korea as well as other issues. Mr Pompeo’s travels will then take him to Hanoi, Abu Dhabi and Brussels, before he concludes his trip in Brussels on July 10-12, where he’ll accompany Mr Trump to the NATO summit.
Sung Kim, the US ambassador to the Philippines and a veteran of nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, met with North Korean officials on Sunday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday. “What I can tell you is that we’re continuing to make progress,” she said.
The US and North Korea have expressed different expectations for the pace and sequence of North Korea’s disarmament and relief from international sanctions. While Mr Trump said North Korea would see economic penalties relaxed only after he has “completely denuclearised,” Kim has advocated a “step-by-step” process.
In testimony before a US Senate committee, Mr Pompeo declined to go into specifics but suggested the scope of what the US has in mind. He said that would include transparency by North Koreans about the nuclear material they have, the engineering of it and the missiles that would deliver those nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction.
Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton said Mr Pompeo would visit North Korea to discuss “how to dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic missile programs in a year.”
But Mr Pompeo, Mr Trump’s point man for talks, said in Seoul last month that the US would seek “major disarmament” from North Korea by the end of his first term, or about two and a half years from now.
Still, there are gestures both sides could make to build trust along the lines of the US president’s unilateral decision to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea planned for August.
The secretary of state may press North Korea to allow the recovery of some of the almost 7,700 soldiers still unaccounted for after the 1950-53 Korean War, the most concrete agreement to come out of Trump-Kim summit. US officials have said that North Korea has already identified about 200 sets of remains that could be quickly recovered.
The last time Mr Pompeo was in Pyongyang in May, he secured the release of three American prisoners, a goodwill gesture that help lay the groundwork for the summit.