Tokyo • Hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed his two-day visit to Pynongyang as a “productive” round of “good-faith negotiations,” North Korea on Saturday sharply criticized U.S. negotiators’ attitude during the talks as “regrettable” and “robber-like,” accusing the United States of making unilateral demands to denuclearize.
The remarks exposed the fragility surrounding discussions at the center of President Trump’s foreign policy, raising questions about Pyongyang’s intentions and whether the Foreign Ministry’s statement represents a temporary outburst or if it signified a deeper misunderstanding between the two negotiating teams.
The statement, issued Saturday by an unnamed spokesman and shared by the state-run Korea Central News Agency, said the United States violated the spirit of the June 12 Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Norean leader Kim Jong Un. It contradicted statements made earlier by Pompeo, who signaled the visit made “progress on almost all of the central issues.”
At the same time, North Korea said it still wants to build on the “friendly relationship and trust” that Trump and Kim created during the Singapore gathering. Pompeo did not meet with the North Korean leader during his visit and did not secure a shared understanding of the path to denuclearization.
The secretary has come under increasing pressure to produce results, with Trump having touted the summit as a game-changing moment that eliminated North Korea’s nuclear threat.
Analysts say that any final accord between the two nations to eliminate Pyongyang’s sophisticated nuclear and missile arsenal will be a long slog with no guarantee of success.
“While we were hopeful there would be some sort of breakthrough, it seems both sides can’t even agree to what transpired after countless hours of talks - and that is a massive problem,” said Harry Kazianis, an Asia expert at the Center for the National Interest.
Pompeo told reporters Saturday that the two countries would soon hold working-level talks on the destruction of Pyongyang’s missile-engine-testing facility. He also said Pentagon officials will meet with their North Korean counterparts on or near July 12 at the demilitarized zone between the Koreas to discuss the return of U.S. military personnel who died during the Korean War.
Last month, Trump told a crowd of supporters that the remains of 200 service members had “been sent back,” but U.S. military officials later said that was not the case. U.S. officials viewed the issue as an easy confidence-building measure to demonstrate North Korea’s sincerity and have been frustrated with the speed of Pyongyang’s follow-through.
Pompeo said both the testing facility issue and recovering U.S. remains still need to be finalized. “We now have a meeting set up for July 12 - it could move by one day or two - where there will be discussions between the folks responsible for the repatriation of remains,” he said.
When asked if he got any closer to setting out a timeline to denuclearize, Pompeo said, “I’m not going to get into details of our conversations but we spent a good deal of time talking . . . and I think we made progress in every element of our discussions.”
Pompeo’s visit to North Korea forced the United States to postpone a planned meeting of U.S. and Indian defense and foreign ministers, so expectations were high among Japanese and South Korean officials that Pompeo would meet with Kim Jong Un during the two-day visit. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, however, said the United States had no expectation of a meeting with Kim even though White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on July 2 that Pompeo would “meet with the North Korean leader and his team.”
Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat with a long history of negotiating with North Korea, said that it was evident now that talks in Pyongyang had not gone well - and that it appeared North Korea may have no intention of actually denuclearizing in the way the United States would want.
“Pompeo appears to have presented the North Koreans with some demands and requirements for real moves towards denuclearization, as opposed to the symbolic steps and empty language Pyongyang has been using so far. He deserves credit for doing so,” Revere wrote in an email.
“But in doing so, he has elicited North Korean ire, and he has now seen the reality of North Korea’s game plan and intentions that many of us have been describing for some time,” Revere added. “Welcome to our world, Mr. Secretary.”
Ahead of the new round of talks, Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s septuagenarian former spy chief, teased Pompeo, suggesting that the “serious” negotiations the night before may have caused Pompeo to lose sleep.
“We did have very serious discussion on very important matters yesterday. So thinking about those discussions, you might have not slept well last night,” Kim said.
“Director Kim, I slept just fine,” Pompeo responded, according to a pool report provided by reporters accompanying the secretary of state.
Kim, a regime hard-liner who is careful not to act outside North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s instructions, said he needed to “clarify” aspects of his nearly three-hour negotiations Friday with Pompeo, a desire the top U.S. diplomat immediately echoed.
“There are things that I have to clarify as well,” Pompeo said.
The display of small talk between North Korean and U.S. officials, a rarity given the infrequent contacts between the longtime adversaries, revealed both the tension at the heart of the nuclear negotiations and the increasing familiarity of the two men who have become diplomatic counterparts during Pompeo’s three visits to Pyongyang and Kim’s visit to New York City in May.
Nauert said Pompeo was being “very firm” in seeking three basic goals from the visit: the complete denuclearization of North Korea, security assurances and the repatriation of fallen soldiers.
Diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, said the United States continues to struggle to develop a shared understanding of what denuclearization means to North Korea.
Adding to the pressure on Pompeo is a leaked U.S. intelligence assessment casting doubt on North Korea’s willingness to relinquish its arsenal.
Nauert said Pompeo called Trump on Saturday morning to update him on the talks, a call that included White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton.
During the visit, Nauert said, the two sides agreed to set up working groups to deal with the “nitty-gritty stuff,” including verification of efforts to achieve denuclearization, but there was no indication that the North Korean working group would be empowered by Kim Jong Un, a necessary ingredient for any progress.
Following last month’s summit in Singapore, senior U.S. and North Korean diplomats struggled to maintain basic communication, leading to concerns that the talks would require Pompeo, who has many other responsibilities, to devote an unmanageable amount of time on the Korea issue.
The top U.S. diplomat said Saturday the two sides “laid out a path for further negotiation” among lower-ranking officials.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the ability for those more junior officials to work productively is critical.
“What concerns me at this stage is the secretary of state flying all the way from Washington to Pyongyang to try to engage in detailed working-level negotiations as an ongoing approach to negotiating denuclearization,” he said. “That’s unsustainable.”
The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor in Seoul contributed to this report.