In a surprise announcement, President Trump on Friday conceded a lack of progress on denuclearization in North Korea and instructed Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to scrap a planned visit to Pyongyang “at this time,” a setback in the emerging diplomatic detente between the two longtime adversaries.
Pompeo had announced Thursday that he planned to make his fourth visit to Pyongyang early next week and would take Stephen Biegun, the newly-appointed special representative for North Korea, to try to break the logjam in the nuclear negotiations.
But the State Department canceled the trip after Trump tweeted that he had asked Pompeo to stay home, for now, “because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The president blamed China, in part, for his decision to cancel the meeting. Beijing, he said, was not “helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were,” a reference to China’s increasingly tense trade dispute with Washington.
But Trump also held out an olive branch, saying Pompeo looked forward to returning “in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved.” He added, “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
A White House spokeswoman said Pompeo met with Trump at the White House shortly before Trump fired off the tweets, suggesting they were not off-the-cuff. A senior negotiator and Korea expert at the CIA, Andrew Kim, was seen entering the White House with Pompeo, CNN reported.
The tweets marked Trump’s first public acknowledgement that North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un was not fulfilling pledges the White House says he made when Kim and Trump met June 12 at a landmark summit in Singapore.
The White House said Kim agreed to start the process of dismantling his nuclear infrastructure, starting by submitting a detailed list of its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Kim has never publicly confirmed that, and his government has pushed the Trump administration to agree to a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War as a precondition for further progress.
Until now, Trump has hailed the summit as a historic success, dismissing critics who said Kim failed to make any commitments he had not made in the past. Over the last two months, North Korea has continued to enrich uranium that could be used as bomb fuel, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency report released this week.
As recently as Monday, Trump was asked by Reuters whether North Korea had taken steps to denuclearize, beyond its highly-publicized destruction of entrances to an underground test site in May. “I do believe they have,” he said.
But administration officials expressed concern after Pompeo’s last visit to Pyongyang, on July 5, which was widely seen as unsuccessful. Kim did not receive Pompeo, as he had previously, and the North Koreans leveled tough criticism at Pompeo moments after he left the country.
Canceling the trip now might provide diplomats some breathing room. Another public failure in Trump’s high-stakes diplomatic initiative would have embarrassed Pompeo and the White House and could make it more difficult to regain momentum.
In any case, the withdrawal follows a similar move last May. Shortly before the planned summit, officials in Pyongyang aimed harsh criticism at the White House, and Trump responded by cancelling the talks. He backtracked after a senior North Korean official brought a letter from Kim, and flew to Singapore for an expected two days of talks. Kim left after lunch the first day.
U.S. experts on North Korea have cast doubt over Trump’s claims that the summit produced a meaningful disarmament agreement, noting that the two leaders agreed only to a brief and vague closing statement.
The two sides have never formally agreed on the meaning of denuclearization, providing diplomatic space but also leaving significant ambiguity about what it would entail. Moreover, U.S. presidents since the mid-1990s have made deals with Pyongyang only to later complain of cheating.
The summit clearly produced some progress. North Korea released four Americans it had incarcerated, and returned 55 sets of human remains that it said may be those of American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War. It also ended months of personal insults between Trump and Kim, raising fears that a miscalculation could lead to war.
If Trump sticks to his tweet that the nuclear negotiations will not resume until after the U.S. and China resolve their dispute over trade and tariffs, denuclearization could become an even more distant prospect.
U.S. and Chinese officials, meeting in Washington for two days this week, failed to show progress in the mounting trade battle.
While few expected a breakthrough, analysts had seen the possibility that the lower-level meetings could lead to bilateral talks between senior officials and that the two sides could hold off on imposing more tariffs in the meantime.
Instead, it appears likely that the Trump administration will announce a new and much bigger round of tariffs as early as next month on as much as $200 billion of Chinese imports. That would ratchet up pressure on Beijing but risk economic harm to many American importers and manufacturers’ supply chains.
Trump’s comments Friday, conflating the nuclear threat from North Korea with the trade dispute with China, reinforced concerns that the world’s two largest economies are heading for a bigger brawl in coming months.
“It definitely conveys the impression that overall relations [with China] are quite bad right now,” said David Dollar, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former Treasury Department economic emissary to China.
Times staff writer Don Lee in Washington contributed to this report.