TOKYO — Just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departed North Korea after two days of nuclear negotiations, North Korea sharply criticized the U.S. attitude ot the talks “regrettable” and accused the United States of making demands of unilateral denuclearization.
The remarks from North Korea’s foreign ministry directly contradicted statements made by Pompeo that the visit made “progress on almost all of the central issues” and involved “good-faith negotiations.”
Pompeo has come under increasing pressure to produce tangible results from a June 12 summit that President Trump quickly touted as a game-changing moment that eliminated North Korea’s nuclear threat.
But analysts said the reality is now sinking in that any final accord between the two nations to eliminate Pyongyang’s sophisticated nuclear and missile arsenal will be a long slog with no guarantee of success.
“While we were hopeful there would be some sort of breakthrough, it seems both sides agreed to merely keep talking,” said Harry Kazianis, an Asia expert at the Center for the National Interest.
Pompeo told reporters that the two countries would soon hold working-level talks on the destruction of Pyongyang’s missile-engine-testing facility. He also said Pentagon officials will meet with their North Korean counterparts on or near July 12 at the demilitarized zone between the Koreas to discuss the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War.
Last month, Trump told a crowd of supporters that the remains of 200 people had “been sent back,” but U.S. military officials later said that was not the case. U.S. officials viewed the issue as an easy confidence-building measure to demonstrate North Korea’s sincerity and have been frustrated with the speed of Pyongyang’s follow-through.
Pompeo said both the testing facility issue and recovering U.S. remains still need to be finalized.
“We now have a meeting set up for July 12 — it could move by one day or two — where there will be discussions between the folks responsible for the repatriation of remains,” he said.
When asked if he got any closer to setting out a timeline to denuclearize, Pompeo said, “I’m not going to get into details of our conversations but we spent a good deal of time talking . . . and I think we made progress in every element of our discussions.”
Pompeo’s visit to North Korea forced the United States to postpone a planned meeting of U.S. and Indian defense and foreign ministers, so expectations were high among Japanese and South Korean officials that Pompeo would meet with Kim Jong Un during the two-day visit. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, however, said the United States had no expectation of a meeting with Kim.
“Chairman Kim is keeping his distance, perhaps considering how he will able to win sanctions relief without taking serious denuclearization steps,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Ahead of the new round of talks, Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s septuagenarian former spy chief, teased Pompeo, suggesting that the “serious” negotiations the night before may have caused Pompeo to lose sleep.
“We did have very serious discussion on very important matters yesterday. So thinking about those discussions, you might have not slept well last night,” Kim said.
“Director Kim, I slept just fine,” Pompeo responded, according to a pool report provided by reporters accompanying the secretary of state.
Kim, a regime hard-liner who is careful not to act outside North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s instructions, said he needed to “clarify” aspects of his nearly three-hour negotiations Friday with Pompeo, a desire the top U.S. diplomat immediately echoed.
“There are things that I have to clarify as well,” Pompeo said.
The display of small talk between North Korean and U.S. officials, a rarity given the infrequent contacts between the longtime adversaries, revealed both the tension at the heart of the nuclear negotiations and the increasing familiarity of the two men who have become diplomatic counterparts during Pompeo’s three visits to Pyongyang and Kim’s visit to New York City in May.
Nauert said Pompeo was being “very firm” in seeking three basic goals from the visit: the complete denuclearization of North Korea, security assurances and the repatriation of fallen soldiers.
Diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, said the United States continues to struggle to develop a shared understanding of what denuclearization means to North Korea.
Adding to the pressure on Pompeo to deliver tangible results is a leaked U.S. intelligence assessment casting doubt on North Korea’s willingness to relinquish its arsenal.
Nauert said Pompeo called Trump on Saturday morning to update him on the talks, a call that included White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton.
During the visit, Nauert said, the two sides agreed to set up working groups to deal with the “nitty-gritty stuff,” including verification of efforts to achieve denuclearization, but there was no indication that the North Korean working group would be empowered by Kim Jong Un, a necessary ingredient for any progress.
Following the Singapore summit, senior U.S. and North Korean diplomats struggled to maintain basic communication, leading to concerns that the talks would require Pompeo, who has many other responsibilities, to devote an unmanageable amount of time on the Korea issue.
The top U.S. diplomat said Saturday the two sides “laid out a path for further negotiation” among lower-ranking officials.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the ability for those more junior officials to work productively is critical.
“What concerns me at this stage is the secretary of state flying all the way from Washington to Pyongyang to try to engage in detailed working-level negotiations as an ongoing approach to negotiating denuclearization,” he said. “That’s unsustainable.”