Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Sunday sought to downplay North Korea’s harsh complaints about U.S. demands and insisted that negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament were making progress.
Speaking in Tokyo, Pompeo suggested North Korea’s public statements were very different from what he heard privately during two days of talks with the country’s powerful former spy chief, Kim Yong Chol.
“People are going to make certain comments after meetings,” Pompeo said at a news conference with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea. “If I paid attention to what the press said, I’d go nuts, and I refuse to do that.”
He asserted the government of Kim Jong Un remained committed to a “broad definition of denuclearization” that would proceed “in parallel” with North Korea’s demands, including a “peace regime” that formally ends the 1950-53 Korean War and provides the North with security guarantees.
Later, Pompeo flew to Hanoi and urged North Korea to pursue Vietnam’s “miracle” of prosperity and security.
On Saturday, shortly after Pompeo had departed Pyongyang and claimed “progress” in “productive talks,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry blasted the “regrettable” U.S. attitude and its “unilateral, gangster-like” demands.
Some translations used the descriptor “robber” instead of “gangster,” but the point was the same: Pyongyang contended the United States was demanding everything and offering nothing, and warned of “a dangerous phase” that could “rattle our willingness for denuclearization.”
The tough talk might have been part of a negotiating strategy and a need, especially for domestic consumption, to appear strong in the face of a longtime, bitter foe. In fact, North Korea has already chalked up several wins in its dealings with Trump, including ruler Kim’s recognition on the world stage as a statesman worthy of a sit-down with an American president, and Trump’s sudden acquiescence to the North’s demands for the U.S. to end joint military exercises with South Korea.
But Pyongyang’s comments and the stark contrast to the way Pompeo portrayed the meetings underscored the complexity of a negotiation that many experts warn could take years, if not decades.
In addition to reflecting deep mutual distrust, the exchange also served to put a damper on what many see as President Trump’s overwhelmingly optimistic assessment in the aftermath of his historic summit with Kim on June 12 in Singapore.
At the Singapore event, Trump and Kim agreed to a vaguely worded vow to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” No details of what that meant or how it would be achieved were mentioned, leaving room for wide interpretation by both sides.
Trump returned to Washington declaring victory and saying the nuclear threat from North Korea had been vanquished.
North Korea wants a “phased” process that grants it economic relief, as well as security steps that guarantee the survival of Kim’s dynasty, in exchange, gradually, for disarmament.
Pompeo repeated Sunday, however, that some of those steps will be taken simultaneously only after North Korea has shown to be verifiably destroying its arsenal. The economic sanctions will remain in place until the process is complete, Pompeo said.
He said the North Koreans “understand and have not challenged” the notion that inspections will be part of the process, which he added will apply to all aspects of Kim’s arsenal, including weapons systems, fissile material and production and enrichment facilities.
“What’s most important is what the North Koreans understand, and the demands that the world is making of North Korea … [are] unmistakable,” Pompeo said.
And if those demands “were gangster-like,” he added, “the world is a gangster” because the same demands are part of a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Part of the confusion over the negotiations is that Trump met with Kim for part of the time in Singapore with no one present but interpreters. Without note-takers or aides, virtually unheard of in the world of high-stakes diplomacy, it is unknown what Trump might have said or promised Kim. Trump plans a similar tack when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month.
Pompeo also called on countries around the world to continue to participate in what the administration calls the “maximum pressure campaign” of economic and diplomatic isolation. U.N. and U.S. sanctions had succeeded in cutting into 90% of North Korea’s stated export revenue.
But already, China, North Korea’s principal ally and backer, has been easing up on sanctions, and Japan reported on June 29 another suspected illegal ship-to-ship transfer of goods in the waters around North Korea, the eighth this year.
Pompeo traveled to Tokyo to update key allies Japan and South Korea on the talks. The two countries have felt blind-sided by some of Trump’s concessions to Kim, and Pompeo was hoping to mend the vital trilateral coordination.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono pledged to stand “hand in hand” with Pompeo on nuclear talks “to the end.” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Pompeo had assured her government that the shared defense posture would remain “ironclad” and “watertight,” despite the cancellation of military exercises.
From Tokyo, Pompeo traveled later Sunday to Hanoi. Standing alongside Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Pompeo expressed gratitude for the “deep relationship” America has with its “important partner” Vietnam.
Sunday evening, in a meeting with American and Vietnamese business leaders, Pompeo praised Vietnam for having overcome its past, and said North Korea could follow a similar “remarkable” path.
He said that the United States hopes “that one day we can share the same relationship with North Korea.”