The United States and North Korea gave starkly contrasting reports Saturday at the end of two days of talks intended to firm up Pyongyang’s promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons systems.
The different descriptions of the meeting raised fears that disarmament negotiations may be doomed before they really begin.
While Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo claimed limited “progress” in “productive” meetings, North Korea expressed “regret” over the talks and accused the Trump administration of making unfair “unilateral and gangster-like” demands.
Within hours of Pompeo’s departure early Saturday from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, its foreign ministry issued a statement saying U.S. demands might lead to “a dangerous phase that might rattle our willingness for denuclearization that had been firm.”
Pompeo offered no details of his talks with North Korea’s former spy chief Kim Yong Chol nor did he outline any visible gains. He flew to Tokyo without meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in contrast to his two previous trips to Pyongyang in the last three months.
The meetings in Pyongyang were the first follow-up to the June 12 summit in Singapore, when President Trump and Kim signed a brief, vague agreement to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
The agreement left all details to future talks. This just-ended first session underscores how complicated and arduous negotiations will be to persuade Kim to abandon the nuclear program he and his father and grandfather spent decades building.
The Singapore communique also said the two governments would revive a program of repatriating the remains of U.S. military personnel killed in the Korean War of the 1950s.
North Korea has yet to comply with that step. Pompeo said Pentagon officials would meet with North Korean counterparts Thursday, probably along the demilitarized border that separates North and South Korea, to discuss repatriations.
On more than one occasion, though, Trump has falsely claimed that some remains have already been repatriated, as the Huffington Post first reported.
“We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains. In fact today, already 200 have been sent back,” Trump said during a rally in Duluth, Minn., on June 20.
He repeated that claim in subsequent rallies in Las Vegas and West Columbia, S.C. “And you probably read, they have already done 200 people, which is so great,” he said at the Las Vegas rally.
Pompeo, speaking on the tarmac of the Pyongyang airport, said working groups were being formed from both governments to begin talks on the destruction of North Korea’s missile-engine testing facility.
“These are complicated issues, but we made progress on almost all the central issues,” he told a small group of reporters traveling with him.
“Some places, a great deal of progress. Other places, there’s still more work to be done,” he said.
Earlier, both Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol, acting as his government’s chief negotiator, used nearly identical language to say they had important “things to clarify.”
There was no immediate reaction from Pompeo or other administration officials to Pyongyang’s more gloomy accounting of the talks.
Before he departed Pyongyang, Pompeo was bade farewell by Kim Yong Chol, who could be heard over the sounds of airplane engines saying, “We will produce an outcome, results.”
In his comments to reporters, Pompeo appeared dismissive of new satellite imagery that shows rapid infrastructure improvements at Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the main nuclear facility north of Pyongyang, according to nuclear researchers and other experts. Images also showed the testing of a nuclear-reactor cooling system at Yongbyon.
“No one walked away from” agreeing to complete denuclearization, Pompeo said. “They’re still equally committed. Chairman Kim is still committed. ... We had productive, good-faith negotiations.”
He added that he raised “what the North Koreans are continuing to do” and how “we can get our arms around” achieving the commitments in the Singapore summit.
Pompeo was asked to provide details on two of the key components of any eventual disarmament by North Korea: a complete inventory of its weapons of mass destruction and a timeline for how the arsenal would be dismantled.
“I’m not going to get into details of our conversations, but we spent a good deal of time talking about each of those two things,” Pompeo said, “and I think we made progress in every element of our discussions.”
The North Korean Foreign Ministry, however, said Pompeo presented “cancerous” demands on disarmament issues. “We expected the U.S. to bring constructive measures to build confidence in accordance with the spirit of the U.S.-N.K. Summit,” the ministry said, according to the state-run KCNA news agency.
North Korea’s negative reaction was not altogether surprising, and it could be part of that government’s negotiating strategy. Experts agree that Kim would never give up all of his weapons, and even to halt continued production of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles would require security guarantees from Washington to ensure the survival of his dynasty.
When North Korea talks about denuclearization, it usually refers to the entire peninsula, meaning that the U.S. military presence in South Korea also would have to be eliminated or curtailed.
Trump already has promised Kim that he would stop annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, to the great chagrin of Seoul. Trump’s subsequent words of praise for Kim, a ruthless dictator, also have alarmed allies in the region.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert downplayed the significance of Kim’s decision not to receive Pompeo, saying there was never any expectation of a meeting.
Nauert also denied a South Korean report that Pompeo delivered to Kim a CD recording of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” autographed by Trump. The only item left behind, she said, was a letter from Trump for Kim.