US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets top North Korean official Kim Yong-chol in July. Photo: AFP / Pool

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Pyongyang on Friday on arguably the most critical mission of his career: Kick-starting the North Korean denuclearization process.

He was met at Pyongyang airport by Kim Yong-chol, a senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief who is a close adviser to national leader Kim Jong-un, and by Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, the Associated Press reported.

Pompeo, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has already made two trips to Pyongyang, laying the groundwork for the historic summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12 —  the first-ever meeting between the heads of state of the two nations.

His current mission is likely to be far trickier than bringing together two leaders who wanted to meet. It is not even clear, post-summit, who Pompeo’s negotiating counterpart in Pyongyang will be, and the summit declaration was empty of any detail on how North Korea’s apparent commitments to denuclearization should proceed.

“On this trip I’m seeking to fill in some details on these commitments and continue the momentum toward implementation of what the two leaders promised each other and the world,” Pompeo said during his flight from Washington, AP reported. “I expect that [North Korea] is ready to do the same.”

‘The summit really left a lot of loose ends. So the hope is Pompeo will tie up some of those loose ends’

Most experts simply do not believe that Kim is willing to give up his nuclear deterrent, in which he has invested scarce capital, courted huge international displeasure to develop, and has dubbed “a treasured sword.” Even those who are more positive note that denuclearization is going to be an extremely long and difficult process, particularly given the vagueness of the Singapore summit declaration.

And questions hang over Kim’s motives even before the denuclearization process has begun.

Pompeo’s two-day trip comes at a time when reports from multiple sources allege that even though Kim signed a declaration calling for the “total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” in Singapore, work has since been continuing at nuclear sites in North Korea.

“This is a very important trip as it is the first after the summit, and the summit really left a lot of loose ends on North Korean denuclearization,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korean watcher at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute. “So, the hope is Pompeo will tie up some of those loose ends.”

Joseph DeTrani, who was the US representative to the now-defunct Beijing-sponsored six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization, is one expert who believes Kim is truly willing to give up his atomic arms programs.

“I believe Kim Jong-un has made a strategic decision [on denuclearization],” he said at a global forum in Seoul last week. But DeTrani was quick to point out how difficult the process would be, given the past experiences: “We have had periods of success, but ultimately, we have had 25 years of failed negotiations.”

Litmus test: full declaration, access to facilities

Hitoshi Tanaka, chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, who was also speaking at last week’s forum, noted that while recent international summits on North Korea had been “a remarkable success”, sustainability will “depend on the follow-up process” — which Pompeo has now embarked upon.

That process is predicated upon two critical issues, Tanaka said. One is for North Korea to offer the Americans a comprehensive declaration of their nuclear sites and facilities (believed to number over 100); the second is for Pyongyang to permit international inspectors into the country to look over those sites.

Tanaka said that if North Korea carries out these steps, “I will rest assured that this process will be a success.”

DeTrani added that inspection protocols are critical. Monitors will need to be able to look at the declared sites — assuming that North Korea does, indeed, make a declaration of its facilities — and also at undeclared sites which inspectors consider suspicious.

He said that “if monitors get on the ground, and can leave declared sites and look at suspected sites, and take samples to a third country”, then verification is feasible. But such inspections will, necessarily, be highly invasive. That is where trust could break down. DeTrani warned: “The six-party talks failed because of verification. It is going to be critical.”

Inspectors will be able to employ advanced detection technologies, including equipment to take and analyze water and soil samples. “The technology is excellent,” DeTrani said. “I think we are in a good position.”

‘There is no way they are going to make a list that is close to what we want to see’

Centrifuges for uranium enrichment programs are easily hidden – they can be secreted in basements, for example — but DeTrani said: “The technology is there, regardless of whether they are plutonium or uranium facilities.”

But Go, who does not believe North Korea is sincere in denuclearization,  cast doubt as to whether a full list of nuclear facilities will be forthcoming. “There is no way they are going to make a list that is close to what we want to see,” he said.

Go is equally concerned that North Korea’s ideas of monitoring and verification vary massively from US expectations. “When it comes to inspection protocols, what they understand is something like Punggye-ri — that is probably their understanding of inspections, which is nothing like what we have in mind,” Go said.

North Korea blew up some above-ground facilities and tunnel entrances at its underground nuclear test site at Punggye-ri as a goodwill gesture prior to the Singapore summit, but only international reporters were on hand, and they were above ground. In the absence of professional monitors with specialized equipment, it was impossible to tell if the internal facilities had been comprehensively disabled, or whether tunnel entrances had simply been blocked.

Greg Treverton, who headed the US National Security Council during the Obama administration, and who thinks Kim is sincere about denuclearizing, pointed out in Seoul last month how much of a strain the management and monitoring of the process could be for the US.

Negotiating the (now defunct) Iranian nuclear deal was “at the edge of US government capabilities” in terms of manpower and other  resources, Treverton said: North Korea, with an actual working deterrent, would be an even “more demanding task all round.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in dark glasses, speaks with his aides outside the Park Hwa Guest House after a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean former intelligence chief, in Pyongyang on July 6. Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik/pool

Challenging process and a strain on resources

And while US National Security Adviser John Bolton has suggested a one-year timeline for complete denuclearization, the process of South African denuclearization took two years, said Moon Chung-in, an adviser to the South Korean president. The duration of the total process was closer to 10 years.

DeTrani and Tanaka both noted that the US acronym “CVID” (Complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization), which was left out of the Singapore summit declaration, has always irked the North Koreans. “In 2005, they said they would not accept CVID,” DeTrani said.

Even so, Tanaka remarked that “CVID is what you see at the end of the process — there is no use to put it at the front end of negotiations.”

So what might Pompeo be offered on his visit?

Go suggested that he might return home with the remains of some US soldiers missing in action from the 1950-53 Korean War, and might be offered some other non-core concessions.

“They might make some kind of gestures such as promising to dismantle some missiles and maybe some nuclear warheads, but no complete accounting,” said Go. “Even if they claim it is a complete accounting, with no verification, there is no way.”

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