Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Pyongyang this week to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, even as Pyongyang hardens its stance on denuclearization talks and South Korea’s government warned that the Kim regime has as many as 60 nuclear weapons.
Mr. Pompeo also will make stops in South Korea, Japan and China. The State Department said Tuesday that Mr. Kim’s invitation to the secretary of state “shows forward progress and momentum” in talks that had all but died a month ago amid a wave of belligerent rhetoric from Pyongyang.
President Trump abruptly called off a trip by his top diplomat to North Korea in August, but that was before a flurry of diplomacy at the United Nations and letters exchanged by the two leaders greatly improved the atmosphere, U.S. officials said.
The latest announcement was made hours after a top South Korean official made headlines with a rare public estimate of the North’s nuclear program. U.S. officials are pushing for Mr. Kim to reveal his program’s true scope in order to inspire confidence that he is serious about abandoning his nuclear arsenal.
But the Kim regime showed little sign Tuesday of volunteering such sensitive details. Pyongyang has long feared that such information would be used to target its nuclear deterrent.
U.S. officials hoped Mr. Kim would provide the data in exchange for recognition by Washington of a formal peace declaration between North and South Korea.
To the contrary, the Kim regime warned via state media that it might walk away from nuclear talks if the U.S. doesn’t openly throw its support behind the peace declaration, a move the Trump administration has resisted out of concern that it could lead to calls for the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
The issue is likely to be front and center when Mr. Pompeo visits Pyongyang Sunday. It will be the secretary of state’s fourth visit in less than a year to North Korea, and State Department officials say his goal will be to arrange a second summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump.
While some in the administration, including National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, have publicly lamented that North Korea has not taken significant steps to denuclearize since the first Trump-Kim summit in June, the president has sought to breathe new life into the North Korea talks during recent weeks.
Mr. Trump has expressed confidence that he and Mr. Kim see eye-to-eye despite difficult rhetoric and sticky domestic politics around the nuclear talks in Washington and in Pyongyang. The president told supporters at a recent campaign rally that he and Mr. Kim “fell in love” because of the “beautiful letters” the North Korean leader had sent him and asserted that the two men will “get it done” on denuclearization.
But analysts say the stakes for Mr. Pompeo’s trip couldn’t be higher — for good or ill.
“Pompeo and Kim’s meeting Sunday could be a make-or-break event … especially if it were to go badly,” said Harry J. Kazianis, head of defense studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.
“[It] presents an excellent opportunity to not only ensure Washington and Pyongyang have a clear understanding of each other’s goals when it comes to denuclearization but, and of much more importance, what the agenda and deliverables would be for a much bigger meeting: a summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim,” Mr. Kazianis said in remarks circulated to reporters Tuesday evening.
Step by step
The latest signs suggest the Kim regime won’t be willing to compromise on much unless the U.S. is willing first to begin easing economic sanctions — something the Trump administration has vowed won’t happen until Pyongyang completely and verifiably abandons its nuclear weapons.
The Kim regime insists on a step-by-step approach to denuclearization that it says Mr. Trump endorsed in Singapore in June.
North Korea’s official news agency claimed Tuesday that Pyongyang has taken significant measures to improve relations with Washington and complained that the U.S. was “trying to subdue” the progress through sanctions.
The commentary also warned that an official peace declaration for the divided Korean Peninsula shouldn’t be seen as a “bargaining chip.”
The 1950-53 Korean War ended in what was intended to be a temporary cease-fire. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Mr. Kim have focused several recent summits on a push for the end-of-war declaration by December. Mr. Moon has argued that it would be easier to negotiate than a formal peace treaty and said he and Mr. Kim have agreed that such a “political declaration” wouldn’t require the pullout of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Some analysts predict Mr. Trump will ultimately throw his weight behind the North-South approach.
“I think it is inevitable,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and a North Korea analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Who can stand in the way of peace?” Mr. Maxwell told The Washington Times in an email Tuesday. “I also think [Mr. Trump] is going to adopt the North’s demands for simultaneous step-by-step process.”
But politics around the diplomacy remain sensitive for both sides.
Internal pressure on Mr. Kim to move slowly in talks is so intense that state media in Pyongyang have avoided any mention of the meeting between Mr. Pompeo and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho last week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of Mr. Kim’s ruling Workers’ Party, ran a report Tuesday featuring a long list of other meetings Mr. Ri had at the United Nations — including with Chinese, Russian, Swiss, Kazakh, Venezuelan and other officials — but not with Mr. Pompeo or with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
Analysts say the denuclearization issue is particularly sensitive even for a totalitarian regime like North Korea’s. Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather spent decades staking their legacies on developing the North Korean nuclear program and ensuring control of the military. The notion that Mr. Kim might destroy the program — even in exchange for sanctions relief — is apparently deemed so risky that the 35-year-old dictator’s advisers are downplaying any progress in talks with Washington.
On a separate front Tuesday, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told a parliamentary session in Seoul that he estimates North Korea has 20 to 60 atomic bombs.
Mr. Cho may have unintentionally revealed the information. His ministry said later that the comments didn’t mean that South Korea would accept North Korea as a nuclear state.
The minister was responding to a question by a lawmaker and said the information came from intelligence authorities. The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, wouldn’t immediately comment.
The South Korean assessment is not so different from various outside civilian estimates largely based on the amount of nuclear materials that the North is believed to have produced. According to South Korean government reports, the North is believed to have produced about 110 pounds of weaponized plutonium, enough for at least eight bombs.
Stanford University scholars, including nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea’s centrifuge facility at Nyongbyon in 2010, wrote this year that North Korea is estimated to have a highly enriched uranium inventory of 550 to 1,100 pounds, which is sufficient for 25 to 30 nuclear devices.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.