US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, thought to be behind the bold move. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

As the diplomatic swirl around upcoming summits with North Korea continues to accelerate, it has emerged that then-CIA Chief Mike Pompeo engaged in direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month.

And with South Korean officials talking up a possible peace treaty for the peninsula ahead of next week’s inter-Korean summit, US President Donald Trump has given the plan his conditional approval.

Pompeo and circumstance – in Pyongyang

According to multiple US news reports, Pompeo – now Trump’s secretary-of-state appointee, pending Congressional confirmation, but at the time Washington’s top spook – met with North Korean leader Kim in Pyongyang over the Easter Weekend.

While details of his mission were scant, it seems likely that the then-CIA head was sounding out agenda items and locations for the summit between Kim and Trump, tentatively scheduled for late May or early June.

Excited speculation surrounds potential locations. Seoul pundits are suggesting locations as far afield as Ulan Bator, Mongolia; Geneva, Switzerland; Stockholm, Sweden; Panmunjom, in the Korean Demilitarized Zone; Pyongyang, North Korea; or Beijing, China.

While an intel chief may seem an unlikely figure to engage in diplomacy, there are peninsula precedents for Pompeo’s mission. Relations between states are customarily handled by foreign ministries, but when it comes to negotiating with secretive North Korea – usually behind closed doors – intelligence services have long played a role: The North and South Korean intelligence services have operated as a communications channel at least as far back as the 1970s.

A peace treaty to end the Korean War?

Meanwhile, multiple sources within South Korea are floating trial balloons about the agenda for the upcoming inter-Korean summit, to be held between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27. The summit – the third between the two Koreas, but the first for both current leaders, Kim and Moon – will take place on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom.

The Munwha Ilbo newspaper, quoting an unnamed official, reported that a peace treaty would be on the agenda. In a briefing to foreign reporters on Wednesday, Culture Minister Do Jong-whan – who had spent two hours with Kim during last month’s visit by South Korean performers to Pyongyang – spoke in vague terms of the possibility of a peace regime, and a peace treaty, on the Korean peninsula.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. A treaty could form one essential component of the “security guarantee” that Kim reportedly seeks. However, the key signatory from Pyongyang’s perspective would almost certainly not be Seoul – which did not sign the 1953 armistice – but Washington. The other signatories to the 1953 agreement were Beijing and Pyongyang.

On paper at least, a peace treaty would alter the security situation on the peninsula – for example, by raising questions over the necessity of the continued stationing of 28,500 US troops in South Korea.

Addressing the possibility of a peace treaty, Trump, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of his meeting with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida, said on Tuesday the North and South were discussing “an end to the war.” The US president added: “Subject to a deal they have my blessing … to discuss that.”

Trump did not detail the “deal” he referred to, but has stated multiple times that his goal on the Korean peninsula is denuclearization.

While experts expect Kim to offer some concessions – such as continuing his current testing moratorium; giving up some fissile materials; and/or accepting international inspectors in his facilities – very few believe he will accept the long-stated US demands to completely, verifiably and irreversibly denuclearize.

Inter-Korean summit details discussed

Meanwhile, working-level officials from the North and South were huddled behind closed doors in Tongilgak, a North Korean building in Panmunjom, on Wednesday. The talks lasted from 10am to 3:15pm, according to Yonhap Newswire.

No details of the talks have been released, but the two sides were expected to discuss the summit’s timing, security and protocol.

The talks may have clarified, for example, what route Kim will take across the Military Demarcation Line – the inter-Korean border which is painted on the concrete in the center of Panmunjom; whether he will arrive on foot or via vehicle; and what kind of security detail will accompany him on the historic, first visit by a North Korean leader to South Korean soil.

Both previous inter-Korean summits were held in the North’s capital, Pyongyang.

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