Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday denied a major gap between the U.S. and North Korea over the definition of denuclearization, in an interview in which he also expressed hopes that planned working-level talks between the two countries will be able to begin “in a couple of weeks.”
Speaking with radio presenter Buck Sexton during an official visit to Mexico City and following months of stalemate in negotiations between the two countries, the Secretary of State insisted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had committed to fully relinquishing his nuclear arsenal.
“We hope that the working-level discussions will begin in a couple of weeks,” he said. “The North Koreans have to go fill the promise that Chairman Kim made. He promised that he would denuclearize his country.”
“He did so publicly in a written document; he said so to President Trump. He has told me that half a dozen times personally. They have to make a decision that they’re prepared to go execute that.”
In return for these steps, Pompeo continued, the U.S. is willing to provide the North with “a set of security arrangements” to guarantee that, should it give up its arms, “the United States won’t attack them.”
“That’s the outlines of the agreement that Chairman Kim and President Trump have made,” he stressed. “We now need the North Korean negotiators to begin to build out on those principles that the two leaders have set forward.”
Pressed on whether there remains ambiguity between the U.S. and North Korea on the definition of “denuclearization,” the Secretary of State insisted there was “clarity” between the two sides.
“I’ve talked to Chairman Kim about this many, many times. Absolute clarity,” he said. “There’s no dispute. This is the fully denuclearized, verified effort that we have been talking about for all of this time.”
“I hear people talk about whether there’s ambiguity. There’s no ambiguity.”
Though Kim Jong Un has repeatedly committed his country to “denuclearization,” observers have for over a year argued that there remains a significant gulf between the U.S. and North Korea on what such a process would involve, as well as its sequencing.
While the U.S. has for months now stressed that the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea is its ultimate goal and must precede any relief from international sanctions, Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected what it has described as Washington’s “unilateral” demands that it disarm.
A statement in Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in December laid out this position in stark terms, arguing that the DPRK would not relinquish its nuclear arsenal until the regional “nuclear threat” from the United States is removed.
The U.S. position has also shifted: National Security Advisor John Bolton in March claimed that denuclearization would also involve Pyongyang relinquishing “chemical and biological weapons” and that “their ballistic missile program ended as well.”
Pompeo’s remarks on Monday come amid increasing signs that the U.S. may be willing to accept a smaller-scale, “nuclear freeze” deal with North Korea amid what appears to be a growing frustration with the diplomatic process in Pyongyang.
North Korea’s foreign ministry last week issued two statements slamming plans for an upcoming joint military exercise by the U.S. and South Korea, warning that the drills, known as “Dong Maeng,” would reduce the country’s willingness to hold working-level negotiations.
Tuesday, too, saw Pyongyang send its strongest ever hint in months that it may be reconsidering its now over-a-year long self-declared moratorium on long-range weapons testing, with leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to pay a visit to what state media described as a “new-built” submarine.
In attendance at that visit were a number of officials with ties to ties to the country’s weapons program, including deputy directors at the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Machine Building Industry Department Hong Yong Chil and Kim Jong Sik, as well as Jang Chang Ha, president of the country’s Academy of National Defense Science.
“The unusual appearance of multiple party Munitions Department and defense industry officials and the report’s emphasis on developing the defense science sector seem to build on signs of the North’s increased display of interest in an arms buildup over the past few months,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“It also seems consistent with an extremely rare series of highly authoritative articles carried by North Korean media since late May that seemed to point to Pyongyang’s hardening stance on the U.S.”
One expert told NK News that, despite the Secretary of State’s remarks on Monday, there remains a major gulf between what both the U.S. and North Korea hope to achieve.
“The U.S. wants a commitment from North Korea on its willingness to denuclearize, and they want the North Koreans to give them explicit assurance as to what such a commitment means before they enter into a small-deal negotiation and a ‘step-by-step process’,” Peter Ward, a contributing analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“From the U.S. point of view, this makes sense,” he continued. “Why would you sign an intermediate/first-step deal without any commitment that you can sell to Congress and the U.S. public?”
Such a deal, Ward argued, would likely be unacceptable to the North Koreans.
“From the North Korean point of view, making a concession of this kind may lock them into a process that they have rejected on numerous occasions: unilateral nuclear disarmament,” he said.
“The North Koreans want to be taken seriously as a nuclear power, they would be prepared to surrender some facilities, and to halt at least part of their program, but they clearly do not want to surrender all their facilities, let alone their nuclear arsenal.”