(WASHINGTON) — Less than a day after North Korea test fired a new barrage of ballistic missiles, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in Asia for a major summit.
While he says he remains “very hopeful” about the future of U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks, there are growing doubts about whether or not the two sides will ever meet to hammer out the details of “denuclearization.”
One month ago, during President Donald Trump’s historic visit to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, Kim Jong Un agreed to working-level negotiations in a matter of weeks, Pompeo told reporters on the plane Tuesday.
After weeks of waiting and preparing, those meetings have not taken place, with Pompeo saying he didn’t “have anything” on when they would. He added it’s “taken a little bit longer than” expected.
Pompeo is in Bangkok, Thailand, for a summit held by ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He’s accompanied by his chief negotiator, Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, but he told reporters he doesn’t anticipate meeting any North Koreans during his two full days on the ground there.
Since Trump and Kim’s second summit ended without an agreement, talks have been largely at a stand still, with both sides demanding the other take the first step. North Korea believes the U.S. has done nothing to live up to its side of the Singapore summit agreement, while the Trump administration says it will not lift any sanctions until North Korea takes steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
While Trump and Kim’s DMZ meeting sparked a flicker of hope, with the promise of working-level meetings, those haven’t materialized, and there’s concern they may never. After months of ignoring him, North Korea only agreed to meet Biegun earlier this year to lay the groundwork for the second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
After visiting Pyongyang last October, Pompeo said North Korea agreed to allow inspectors to visit its nuclear test site to verify it had been dismantled, but those inspectors still haven’t been given entry to the country.
As the U.S. pushes for working-level talks, North Korea did grant a meeting at the DMZ last year, according to a senior administration official, but only for the White House to hand off photographs from Trump’s historic crossing into North Korea and meeting with Kim.
When a National Security Council official asked the North Korean team when talks will resume, they replied it will happen very soon.
Last year, the ASEAN summit was key to getting nuclear talks back on track after a contentious first meeting in Pyongyang. In the first talks after the Singapore summit, Pompeo was snubbed by Kim, and after he left, North Korea accused him of making robber- or gangster-like demands.
But at ASEAN, his envoy, U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim, hand-delivered a letter to North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho from Trump for Kim, and a new talk of negotiations were scheduled for later that August.
This year, however, Ri will not be attending the summit. The senior administration official said Tuesday that North Korea was sending a lower-level adviser the U.S. may meet, but it’s unclear if Pompeo or his team would meet them.
“We’ll see if they are there, and if they are there, I am confident we’ll meet,” Pompeo said Tuesday.
In the meantime, North Korea has test fired two rounds of ballistic missiles, first last Thursday and then again Wednesday.
While the tests are a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, Trump and Pompeo have dismissed them as minor provocations or attempts by Pyongyang to strengthen their hand in negotiations.
“North Korea has engaged in activity before we were having diplomatic conversations far worse than this,” Pompeo told Fox News last Thursday. “Lots of countries posture before they come to the table.”
But the tests, in particular of a new kind of ballistic missile last Thursday, also allow North Korea to enhance their military capability that threatens Americans in the region and U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
Kim “is avoiding provoking the U.S. to keep the dialogue door open by engaging in gray zone provocations to strengthen its missiles and protest upcoming U.S.-ROK drills,” according to Duyeon Kim, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, using an acronym for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
The U.S. and South Korea are expected to begin military drills next week, which North Korea has repeatedly warned Seoul against doing. North Korea has continually blasted the exercises as “war games” for an invasion — a line that Trump has parroted in explaining his decision to cancel several high-profile exercises.
“The present South Korean ‘government’ orchestrated a ‘handshake of peace’ in public, and behind the scene, holds joint military exercises against the fellow countrymen in collusion with outsiders… Such double-dealing deeds go to clearly prove that the confrontational maniacs remain unchanged in their black-hearted intention to stifle the DPRK by force,” a North Korean state media commentary said of South Korea Wednesday.
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