‘Big guy’ Pompeo faced a hard bargain in latest Pyongyang visit with North Korea calling the shots
From the minute the US secretary of state arrived, he was told his preferred translator wouldn’t be allowed, and his bodyguard would have to leave his weapon behind
From the moment Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on Sunday, North Korean officials made clear who was in control and how little space the top US diplomat would have setting the terms of the discussion that would follow.
Pompeo was greeted on the airport tarmac by senior official Kim Yong-chol, who told him that only three people could join him in the meeting that he had come for with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Yong-chol also made clear that Pompeo’s preferred translator wouldn’t be allowed, and his bodyguard would have to leave his weapon behind, according to a pool reporter travelling with Pompeo.
“We will make – we will figure it out and make it work,” Pompeo told his greeter. He tried to shrug off the restrictions on his bodyguard, calling him a “big guy” and laughing.
The brief but tense scene at the start of a day-long visit to Pyongyang showed just how hard the secretary of state must fight for even the smallest concession from Kim’s regime as he seeks to secure a deal for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons for good. Pompeo said there was agreement that Kim and President Donald Trump would hold their second summit as soon as possible, but plans for a sequel to their June meeting in Singapore already were in the works.
At least, a US official travelling with Pompeo said, the visit to North Korea went better than Pompeo’s previous trip, which ended with a North Korean statement accusing him of making “gangster-like” demands.
This time, Kim was satisfied with the “productive and wonderful talks” with Pompeo, according to the country’s KCNA news service. The North Korean leader said progress is being made in implementing the goals of the first summit, and he “expressed his gratitude to President Trump for making sincere effort to this end,” KCNA said.
But the US official conceded that there’s a “long haul” ahead. And by the time Pompeo wrapped up several hours of talks and flew to Seoul on Sunday evening, it was unclear what had been accomplished.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the two sides had “refined options for the location and date” of a second summit. And she added that Kim invited inspectors to Punggye-ri, the site of all six of the regime’s nuclear blasts. That site was dismantled in May before a crowd of journalists, not nuclear experts.
Given the delicate nature of talks with North Korea, it’s possible that Pompeo and his hosts reached agreements not yet made public. It’s also possible Pompeo wants to brief Trump – they are expected to have lunch on Tuesday – before any announcements are made. But what is known appears marginal.
In Seoul, Pompeo told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Kim had agreed to have another summit “as soon as possible”, according to a statement from Moon’s office. Trump said on Twitter: “Progress made on Singapore Summit Agreements! I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim again, in the near future.”
But that wasn’t an advance on comments Trump made last month in New York, when he said he wanted to meet Kim “very soon”.
Notably there was no mention of Yongbyon, the nuclear fuel production site that the US wants to see closed. North Korea has shut it down in past negotiations – and then reopened it. The comments also made no reference to past statements about wrapping up denuclearisation by 2021, a deadline that Trump and Pompeo have since backed away from.
The South Koreans and Nauert said the US and North Korea agreed to have working-level groups “intensify discussions” on delivering Trump and Kim’s commitments from their Singapore summit, when the two sides promised to work toward denuclearisation and improve relations.
“As President Trump said, there are many steps along the way and we took one of them today,” Pompeo told Moon in Seoul on Sunday. “It was another step forward.”
Given how short the visit was, Pompeo was not expected to be able to resolve critical issues over getting North Korea to disarm or make much progress on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean war. Kim’s regime has said it wants to focus on more than just its nuclear programme, and that it expects the US to show some flexibility with its demands.
Regardless of the push and pull and the apparent lack of a breakthrough, it was an apparent improvement on Pompeo’s visit three months ago, when Kim declined to meet him at all. This time Pompeo met Kim twice – once for negotiations and then for a working lunch on the bucolic grounds of the guest house where Pompeo’s staff was installed for the day.
“It’s a very nice day that promises a good future,” Kim said, “for both countries”.
One clear winner from the diplomatic back-and-forth in recent months is Kim: The North Korean leader derives enormous domestic benefit from being seen as a respected head of state meeting with a US president and his top deputies, and not just the dictator of a rogue, isolated regime.
Pompeo’s trip was the latest turn in a diplomatic saga that saw Trump and Kim threaten each other with nuclear war last year only to sign a vague agreement in June to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. Progress since then has been thin.
There’s no sign that North Korea is slowing down its production of nuclear fuel. In June, NBC News reported that an updated intelligence assessment concluded that North Korea was stepping up production of fuel for nuclear weapons at secret sites across the country.
That progress contradicts promises North Korea has made dating back at least to 1992, and in recent months, when Kim promised to honour all past agreements and work toward denuclearisation.
Kim has “done very little, and none of what he’s done is impeding the progress of his programme”, said Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corp. “Here’s Kim in March promising to denuclearise and all he’s been doing is nuclearising.”
Weakening support for US-led sanctions – from countries including Russia and China, but also South Korea – has also led to a growing sense that Pompeo is spending more and more of his time just trying to keep existing restrictions in place. Pompeo will visit Beijing on Monday, where he will push for China to keep enforcing sanctions, before returning to Washington.
The challenge for the US remains stark: American administrations for decades have been stymied by North Korean intransigence on its nuclear programme, and the rapport between Trump and Kim has not resolved that issue. A second summit in the coming weeks could boost Trump ahead of US midterm elections in November, but a failure to secure any measurable commitments would undercut what the president has seen so far as a clear foreign policy strength.
A key issue highlighted by one former US official who has spoken to North Korean officials in recent months is that the definition Kim’s regime has of denuclearisation is far more expansive than it is for the US.
The US says denuclearisation means North Korea giving up its weapons. According to the former official, the North Korean diplomats told him that denuclearisation for them refers to a process by which the US also reduces its nuclear weapons, possibly worldwide.
The mystery for analysts and observers remains how much more may be going on behind the scenes than US officials are admitting publicly. Trump hinted of more progress during a press conference in New York last month, and Pompeo has said the two sides are communicating.
“I would assume there are negotiations going on over specifics – somewhere there are people meeting,’’ said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If that isn’t happening, then it’s a really interesting question of what even the point of a second summit would be.’’