US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang in April. Photo: AFP/US Government
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang in April. Pyongyang said on Friday that it was 'sceptical' about whether it could negotiate with Pompeo. Photo: AFP/US Government

Despite intense global attention focused on his activities, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed nothing substantial about his mission to Pyongyang, the key stopover on his ongoing Asia tour, after landing in Seoul on Sunday.

Pompeo had been expected to discuss the timing and location of a second North Korea-US summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Other likely topics were upgraded relations and a formal end to the Korean War – which North Korea seeks, as well as a bilaterally agreed-upon denuclearization process -which is the US goal.

Pompeo held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the day, and flew into Seoul in the evening. But as of Sunday night, there were few details and no apparent outcome, nor had any early-morning White House tweets on the meeting appeared – indicating that it may not be before Pompeo returns to the US that more details emerge.

In his first communication after meeting Kim, Pompeo tweeted: “Had a good trip to #Pyongyang to meet with Chairman Kim. We continue to make progress on agreements made at Singapore Summit. Thanks for hosting me and my team @StateDept.”

He added little when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

According to a message from the presidential Blue House, Moon invited Pompeo to speak to attending media if he wished to make a public statement. Pompeo declined, saying,” I cannot say much. I will give more details later when we are alone,” only adding, “I have had a good and productive conversation today. President Trump said we still have a lot to do. But I can say that I took another step today.”

A later message from the Blue House was vague. It stated that Moon and Pompeo spoke for 40 minutes, during which Pompeo said he and Kim had discussed the timing and location of a second summit, and also denuclearization measures – including the formation of a working-level group.

Earlier in Pyongyang, Pompeo and Kim met for three and a half hours according to pool reports. Kim was joined by the two figures who have this year emerged as his key advisors: His younger sister, Kim Yo Jong,  and former espionage general Kim Yong Chul (no relation).

Kim and Pompeo also had a 90-minute lunch before Pompeo left for Seoul. But while the reports detailed the menu the US entourage enjoyed – foie gras, conch soup, steak, grilled pine mushrooms and chocolate cake, sweet red wine and soju, a Korean spirit – nothing was revealed about the content of talks.

A second Kim-Trump meeting looks increasingly essential, given the lack of progress their subordinates have made since the landmark first-ever North Korea-US summit in Singapore on June 12.

Post-Singapore: progress minimal

The two sides agreed, in a joint declaration after their landmark Singapore summit, on four key points. They were: The establishment of “new relations” aimed at “peace and prosperity;” the building of a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula;” the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula; and recovery of war remains.

While war remains have, indeed, been returned to the US, Pyongyang has focused on the first two points, while Washington works almost exclusively toward the third point, denuclearization.

Still, today’s trip, Pompeo’s fourth to Pyongyang, will hopefully be proven more successful than his third in July.

Then, he held talks with Kim Yong Chol that Kim Jong Un did not join. The trip ended with no tangible result, but with North Korean state media lambasting Pompeo for making “gangster-like” demands. A follow-up trip was canceled by US President Donald Trump, citing lack of progress on denuclearization.

However, relations seemed to get a reboot following last month’s inter-Korean summit and subsequent meetings between Moon and Trump, as well as between North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Pompeo on the sidelines on the UN General Assembly in New York last month.

Trump and Pompeo have since revealed that negotiations with North Korea have been ongoing, without detailing personnel or channels. Trump has, however, admitted that he and Kim “fell in love,” adding that Kim has written him “beautiful letters.”

Pompeo is currently on a swing through the region as he communicates with all key players on the North Korean denuclearization process. On Saturday, he was in Japan; on Saturday he visited both Pyongyang and Seoul; on Monday he is expected in Beijing.

Who wants what?

While the United States has expressed satisfaction with Pyongyang’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, it seeks a declaration of the North’s nuclear assets, specialists and facilities. Experts expect the receipt of such a list to be followed by related facility inspections; agreements on dismantlement protocols; and verification of dismantlement by international inspectors.

While Pyongyang has not yet signaled that it is ready to offer any such list, North Korea did, during last month’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, put forward a new proposal: It would dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for “corresponding measures” from the United States.

The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, north of Pyongyang, is the epicenter of North Korean nuclear activities. It is the home to its flagship reactor a Soviet-era facility that went critical in 1986. Plutonium produced by the reactor is believed to have been used for the majority of the state’s nuclear tests.

While it is not known where North Korea’s uranium enrichment assets are sited – US intelligence suggests Kanson, in Pyongyang’s suburbs – or where it stores warheads and other fissile materials, the closure of Yongbyon would be a central step in any denuclearization process.

But clearly, the “corresponding steps” from the US are critical: Foreign Minister Ri told the UN General Assembly last month that there was “no way” it would denuclearize without US concessions.

Some detail was offered in a rare speech at Columbia University in New York,  on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. There, Thae Hyong-chol, president of the elite Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, demanded Washington declare an end to the Korean War and sign a peace treaty with the North. He called these the prerequisites for progress on denuclearization.

And South Korea’s Moon, during an interview with Fox News last month, suggested an end-of-war declaration, the easing of international sanctions against North Korea, cultural exchanges and the establishment of a US diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang.

Pompeo conceded last week that Washington is considering end-of-war steps when he told a reporter that China, too, would be a signatory to a peace agreement.  The July 1953 Korean War Peace armistice was signed by North Korea – representing itself and China – and by the United States – representing all UN forces that fought in the war. South Korea, which was then opposed to ending the war with the peninsula still divided, did not sign.

The United States has customarily been wary about signing a peace treaty – a demand that North Korea has been making for decades – partly on the basis that such a deal could invalidate the presence of US troops in South Korea. Perhaps for this reason, South Korea has raised the issue of an end-of-war declaration as a halfway step to the signing of an actual peace treaty.

But whatever its current position on a treaty, the United States remains hardline on sanctions.

Washington insisted, during a UN Security Council meeting chaired by Pompeo, that UNSC sanctions remain in place until denuclearization is achieved. Russia and China both raised the possibility of rewarding North Korea’s denuclearization steps with an easing of sanctions – a move that it appears Seoul also concurs with, although it officially supported the US position at the meeting.

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