After his first overnight stay in North Korea’s capital, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo entered a second day of talks on Saturday seeking to agree to details on the dismantlement of the rogue state’s nuclear program.
Pompeo and his counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, revealed little about the content of their negotiations, leaving the focus on pleasantries and small talk as the two men grappled with the most pressing security issue facing the Asia Pacific.
Ahead of the new round of talks, 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 on 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 among 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.
State Department spokesperson Heather 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 the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers from the Korean War.
Diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, said the U.S. continues to struggle to develop a shared understanding of what denuclearization means to North Korea. U.S. officials also have been frustrated with North Korea’s failure to return about 200 sets of remains believed to be ready for repatriation.
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 nuclear and missile arsenal.
“I bet it got tense,” said Harry Kazianis, an Asia expert at the Center for the National Interest. “I have heard that the last few sessions between Pompeo and Kim before the Trump-Kim summit got very heated. I also know Pompeo is a gentlemen in negotiations but he does not pull his punches.”
Nauert said Pompeo called President Trump on Saturday morning to update him on the status of the talks, a phone call that included White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton.
After the call, Pompeo returned to the guesthouse for more meetings with Kim Yong Chol. The two men were joined by fairly large delegations that shrank down during the course of the day to just a few people on either side, according to the pool report.
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.
In another somewhat bold remark, Kim Yong Chol made a reference to Pompeo’s age when he pointed out the lush setting of the talks at the prestigious Paekhwawon guesthouse.
“The area around this Paekhwawon guesthouse is full of trees and plants and the air is really fresh, so it is a good place for people over fifties,” Kim said.
“That would include me,” noted Pompeo, a 54-year-old former congressman from Kansas.
Korea experts said Kim Yong Chol’s remarks appeared to be a mixture of Korean humor and diplomatic posturing.
“It’s a combination of Kim Yong Chol’s unique sense of humor, typical Korean small talk about health especially when you reach the age of an ‘elder,’ and trying to give Pompeo a hard time,” said Duyeon Kim, a fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum. “But the last bit is noteworthy. What did Kim say the night before that would make Pompeo even remotely uncomfortable?”