President Trump insisted his North Korea nuclear diplomacy remained on track Wednesday despite the abrupt cancellation of a long-planned meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart that was set for Thursday in New York.
The meeting between Mr. Pompeo and North Korean senior leader Kim Yong-chol was meant to pump new momentum into the nuclear talks, and clear the way for a second summit between Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the near future. The State Department announced the cancellation of the meeting late Tuesday. Department spokesman Robert Palladino described the move Wednesday as “purely a matter of scheduling,” adding the U.S. side is “not going to be driven into artificial timelines.”
Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim agreed to begin the process of denuclearizing the divided Korean peninsula at a milestone summit in Singapore in June, but the two sides have yet to make much visible progress in the months since as they sparred over continuing U.S. sanctions and the sequence of events toward a final, verifiable deal. As the U.S. talks have stalled, the North has stepped up its outreach to South Korea for a rapprochement on the peninsula, leading at times to tension between Washington and Seoul.
Mr. Trump at a White House press conference on Wednesday told reporters he is “in no rush” to push talks forward, and said the New York meeting’s postponement did not signal a problem with the talks.
“We’re very happy how it’s going with North Korea,” Mr. Trump told reporters, saying he still expected to hold the summit with Mr. Kim early in 2019.
“We think it’s going fine. We’re in no rush,” he added. “The sanctions are on. … I’d love to take the sanctions off, but [the North Koreans] have to be responsive, too.”
Administration critics fear Pyongyang is returning to its familiar playbook of drawing out the talks and dangling imaginary concessions in order to ease its international isolation and divide the U.S. from South Korea and other powers in the region.
Over the weekend, a senior North Korean official complained in an editorial on the official state news service of the U.S. hard line in the talks, warning the North was prepared to resume its nuclear programs if the demands were not eased.
The editorial came as top U.S. and South Korean military officials are launching a wide-scale review of all future large-scale military drills between the two allies, with plans to restart major military drills — which North Korea views as a rehearsal for an invasion — in the coming year. Mr. Trump canceled previous U.S.-South Korean military drills as a goodwill gesture to the North in the wake of the Singapore summit.
South Korean presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday that his government doesn’t believe U.S.-North Korea negotiations have completely broken down or “lost their momentum,” but private analysts said calling off Thursday’s meeting was not a hopeful sign.
“It seems most likely talks were canceled to spare both sides the negative press of a failed negotiation, as North Korea and Washington seem very far apart on a viable path forward on denuclearization,” said Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
But on Wednesday, a combative Mr. Trump shunted aside such criticism, asserting once again his argument that his administration has made more progress on the North Korean nuclear problem than any previous administrations.
Mr. Trump said his administration has “made more progress in that four or five months than they’ve made in 70 years. … The sanctions are on, the missiles have stopped, the rockets have stopped, the hostages are home. Nobody else could have done what I’ve done.”
Mr. Pompeo, in September, urged the international community must work harder to enforce sanctions barring illegal imports of additional refined petroleum and coal exports from North Korea, which have been identified as primary sources of funding for the country’s nuclear program.
The North has angrily denounced the continuation of the sanctions even as the negotiations have progressed.