TOKYO — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shot back at North Korean officials for characterizing American diplomatic behavior as gangster-like, saying on Sunday that if that were true, then “the world is a gangster.”
Mr. Pompeo was referring to comments made Saturday by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry that accused the Trump administration of pushing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” and called it “deeply regrettable.” The statement came just hours after Mr. Pompeo left North Korea after two days of meetings that he had called “productive.”
In his remarks on Sunday, Mr. Pompeo noted that the United Nations had agreed to place sanctions on North Korea to try to stop its nuclear and missile programs, saying, “It was a unanimous decision at the U.N. Security Council about what needs to be achieved.”
Mr. Pompeo blamed the media for the stark differences in how he assessed the talks compared to how North Korea’s Foreign Ministry viewed them.
“If I paid attention to what the press said, I’d go nuts,” he said.
But in a news conference in Tokyo beside his counterparts from Japan and South Korea, Mr. Pompeo went back to stressing that economic sanctions would remain in place against North Korea until Pyongyang completely eliminated its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The fundamental difference between North Korea and the United States since the beginning of discussions has been over whether the North gets a gradual and continuous series of rewards for each step it takes in dismantling its weapons programs, or whether those benefits arrive only after everything has been dismantled.
Trump administration officials have insisted for months that they will not approve a step-for-step process that gradually unwinds economic and diplomatic sanctions, seeing such incremental incentives as the reason that negotiations failed during the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.
In his news conference on Sunday, Mr. Pompeo said he was willing to give North Korea some concessions during the country’s denuclearization process but only in the furtherance of improved relations between the two countries and in providing North Korea with security assurances.
“But the economic sanctions are a different kettle of fish altogether,” he said, vowing that the United States would keep its economic sanctions in place until North Korea had fully denuclearized.
“So the world will see continued enforcement actions by the United States in the days and weeks ahead,” he said in a significant toughening of his stance. “We’re counting on those other countries that are with me today and others around the world to continue to enforce these sanctions as well.”
Mr. Pompeo had previously acknowledged that China had modestly eased economic sanctions against North Korea in recent weeks, as relations between Pyongyang and Washington warmed and following summit meetings between Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and President Xi Jinping of China.
Mr. Pompeo had seemed unconcerned about this easing of the economic vise on Pyongyang, and President Trump had said that he no longer wanted to use the words “maximum pressure” to describe American policy for North Korea.
But Saturday morning, Mr. Pompeo reiterated on Twitter the importance of “maintaining maximum pressure” on North Korea.
Since China is responsible for 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, Beijing’s adherence to any economic sanctions is crucial for such pressure to succeed. Whether Beijing will stick to tougher sanctions now that President Trump has declared that the nuclear threat from North Korea has ended is unclear.
Also, the growing trade war between Washington and Beijing may hinder American efforts to keep China’s support of tough sanctions.