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

The last-minute cancellation of a meeting scheduled for today between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart, ex-general Kim Yong Chol in New York, raises questions about the viability of the on-again, off-again dialog between the two diametrically opposed states.

The state of North Korea-US relations also affects inter-Korean relations. Given the apparently deadlocked process between Pyongyang and Washington, it is unclear what issues North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in can achieve in their upcoming summit, tentatively set for December in Seoul.

Unless some UN sanctions are lifted, allowing planned inter-Korean projects such as the re-connection of road and rail lines to proceed, there seems little still left for the two to agree upon that has not already been addressed at this year’s previous three summits.

In the absence of the Kim-Pompeo meeting on Thursday, a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council is set to take place in New York on Thursday, at Russia’s request. There, the US position on no easing of sanctions until North Korea denuclearizes looks likely to be challenged by China and Russia.

South Korea – a US ally – also favors waiving or easing some sanctions. During Moon’s European trip last month, he broached that issue with the leaders of two UNSC permanent members, France’s Emanuel Macron and the UK’s Teresa May.

Kim-Pompeo channel in lock-down

No official reason has yet been given for the cancellation of today’s meeting in New York, but  South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha confirmed that it was the North Korean side which requested the postponement.

More broadly, since the Singapore summit in June, Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol have failed to achieve any substantive agreements.

The two negotiators may be divided by personal dislike.

While public footage of Pompeo and Kim shows the two smiling for the cameras, a source familiar with the situation told Asia Times – on condition of anonymity – that the chemistry between the two is poor. An apparently frustrated Pompeo brusquely dismissed Kim during their last meeting in Pyongyang, when – just as Pompeo was departing – Kim suggested another meeting.

A chasm certainly yawns between the two nations’ positions. “They are too far apart, I don’t know who can resolve the deadlock,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “The channel is not the issue, the issue is different positions.”

The first three clauses of the declaration released at the end of the June Singapore summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump call for improved bilateral relations, a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and denuclearization.

In the months since North Korea has made nods toward denuclearization. It has told Moon that is it willing to dismantle its core nuclear-processing complex and said it would allow international inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. But it has also pressed for a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, and continues to seek eased sanctions.

The US side has largely ignored pleas for an end-of-war declaration and improved relations, concentrating almost exclusively on denuclearization. Washington demands a listing of all North Korean nuclear assets as the start-point of the process. But Pyongyang declines to provide it.

The postponement of today’s meeting is in sync with the belief of one expert, who believes that Pyongyang only has one real aim left in talks with Washington.

“North Korean policy is aimed at only one goal now: they want to win time,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They want to postpone everything without annoying the Americans too much.”

Can upcoming summits actually deliver?

After the most recent inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September, Kim and Moon are expected to meet again in December in Seoul. That would be historic: No North Korean leader is believed to have visited the South’s capital since two opposed Korean states were established in 1948.

But amid stalled progress in North Korea-US relations, there may be little of substance that the two Koreas can agree to do.

“Seoul and Pyongyang are trying to keep this mood alive, to keep the party going,” said Choi. “Washington and Pyongyang don’t want to dance while Seoul and Pyongyang like to – but without any result.”

Still, the Seoul summit offers  Kim a chance to take his charm offensive directly to the South.

“Kim can try to begin wooing South Korean, to make Korean society more friendly,” said Hwang Jae-ho, director of Seoul’s Global Security Cooperation Center, referring to different opinions on North Korea between liberals and conservatives. “Maybe he wants to isolate the conservatives.”

But to actually propel the two – North Korea-US, and inter-Korean – dialog processes forward, much now depends upon the summit expected between Kim and Trump, at a location as yet undecided, next year.

Both leaders have reasons to make that a success. “I personally think it is not going to be completely dead, “ Choi at Hankuk University said. “I think they will try to keep this alive.”

And if the summit offers little likelihood of resolving the long-running crisis, it defuses near-term risk.

“It will be useful to help maintain the illusion of progress and postpone a highly dangerous crisis,” said Lankov. “So it means we are going to have a few more safe months in Northeast Asia.”

Referring to disputes in Washington between those who favor engagement and hardliners who favor kinetic options to force Korea to denuclearize, Lankov characterized diplomatic engagement as a “lie.”

“It is a lie, but it is a necessary white lie,” he said. “We have a choice between dishonesty, broad smiles and no denuclearization, and honesty, a fight with lots of dead bodies, and still no denuclearization.”