US President Donald Trump on Friday abruptly canceled his top diplomat's planned trip to North Korea, publicly acknowledging for the first time that his effort to get Pyongyang to denuclearize had stalled since his summit with North Korea's leader.
Mr Trump partly blamed China for his insufficient progress with North Korea and suggested that talks with Pyongyang, led so far by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, could be on hold until after Washington resolved its bitter trade dispute with Beijing.
It was a dramatic shift of tone for Mr Trump, who had previously hailed his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a success and said the North Korean nuclear threat was over, despite no real sign Pyongyang was willing to give up its nuclear weapons.
"I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Mr Trump wrote in a series of messages on Twitter.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke to Mr Pompeo on Saturday and expressed concern over the delay of his visit. She asked the secretary of state to keep the momentum of dialogue with North Korea to establish denuclearisation and peace on the Korean peninsula, the South Korean foreign ministry said.
China's foreign ministry expressed "serious concern" about Mr Trump's comments, which it called "irresponsible", and said it made "stern representations" to US officials.
Negotiations on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula have all but deadlocked since the June summit in Singapore. Mr Pompeo has pressed for tangible steps toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal while Pyongyang is demanding that Washington first make concessions of its own.
Mr Trump's statement came just a day after Mr Pompeo said he would again visit North Korea and would take his new US special representative, Stephen Biegun, with him in an attempt to break the stalemate.
But Mr Trump asked Mr Pompeo not to go to North Korea during a Friday afternoon meeting at the White House, a senior White House official said.
Many key officials learned of Mr Trump’s decision by seeing the crawl across a television screen, some of them during a meeting to discuss US-North Korea negotiations, two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some US intelligence and defence officials had considered Mr Pompeo’s latest trip to be premature and said the prospects for significant progress appeared dim.
Mr Pompeo, who would have been making his second visit to Pyongyang since the summit, had not been expected to meet Mr Kim this time, the State Department said on Thursday.
Mr Trump put some of the onus on China, North Korea's biggest trading partner and a linchpin in the diplomatic effort, for his decision to scrap Mr Pompeo's trip.
"Because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were (despite the UN Sanctions which are in place)," Mr Trump tweeted.
"Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved," Mr Trump wrote. "In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!"
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Mr Trump defended his approach, saying he believed North Korea had taken specific steps toward denuclearisation. He said he and Mr Kim had “great chemistry” and would "most likely" meet again.
Kelly Magsamen a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asian affairs now at the Centre for American Progress think tank, said Mr Trump was undermining his leverage with Mr Kim as well as that of Mr Pompeo and his new envoy.
“It's fine to not send the Secretary due to lack of progress, but don't then also talk about how you are eager to meet with KJU and how China is thwarting you," she tweeted.
Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to South Korea who led past failed negotiations with North Korea, tweeted: "Looks like @realDonaldTrump has begun to worry about #NorthKorea intentions. Good decision especially if otherwise Pompeo would have returned empty handed."
Mr Kim made a broad, vague commitment in Singapore to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula but has given no sign of a willingness to give up his nuclear arsenal unilaterally.
But intermittent talks since have made little headway, with the two sides apparently far apart on the fundamental issue of denuclearization and the US demand for this before North Korea sees any relief from tough international sanctions.
On his last visit to Pyongyang, in July, Mr Pompeo left saying progress had been made, only for North Korea within hours to denounce his "gangster-like demands." He did not meet with Mr Kim on that trip, although he did on his first two visits, which took place before the summit.
US officials have been trying to persuade North Korea to detail the extent of its nuclear arsenal and the locations of its weapons, something Pyongyang had always refused to do in past failed rounds of talks.
Some analysts suggested Mr Trump's cancellation of the Pompeo trip may also be a negotiating ploy. In May, Mr Trump announced he was calling off his planned summit with Kim, citing Pyongyang's "open hostility,” only to reverse himself eight days later.
Mr Trump’s cancellation of Mr Pompeo’s trip follows two days of mid-level US-China trade talks in Washington that ended with no sign of progress toward resolving a deepening trade war between the world’s two largest economies and no plans for more talks in the near term.