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The Sanctions Effect in North Korea: Observations from Rason
SEOUL—The fate of negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program was cast into doubt Saturday after Pyongyang called the result of a two-day visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “regrettable” and said it raised the “risk of war.”
Pyongyang’s statement offered a sharply contradictory account of the outcome of the talks after Mr. Pompeo departed the country saying that talks had been held in “good faith” and “progress” had been made on central issues.
In an early sign of the disconnect, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, who met Mr. Pompeo on both previous visits to Pyongyang, did not meet the U.S. secretary of state.
The State Department declined to comment on the reaction from Pyongyang or the future of the process.
Cooperation between the two sides has been mixed since President Donald Trump met the North Korean leader in Singapore last month. At the meeting, both agreed to work toward “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” without specifying key details.
“These are complicated issues but we made progress on almost all of the central issues,” Mr. Pompeo said in Pyongyang on Saturday before boarding the flight to Tokyo. “Some places, a great deal of progress, other places there’s still more work to be done.”
Hours later, a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry said U.S. demands for specific pledges on complete denuclearization violated the spirit of the agreement reached in Singapore.
“The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand[s] for denuclearization,” the spokesman said in a statement released in Pyongyang’s state media. “All of which run counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks.”
The weekend talks between Mr. Pompeo and General Kim Yong Chol, one of the North Korean leader’s top lieutenants, have been the highest-level engagement between the two countries since the summit on June 12.
It isn’t the first time North Korea has attacked the U.S. to gain leverage since entering into discussions with the Trump administration. Pyongyang issued a sharply worded statement ahead of planned U.S. military exercises with South Korea that briefly prompted Mr. Trump to withdraw from the summit in Singapore, which ultimately went ahead as planned.
The North Korean statement warned Washington against old methods that raise “cancerous” issues that “amplify distrust and risk of war.” Such an approach could shake North Korea’s “unwavering determination to denuclearize,” the spokesman said in the statement.
“I think it’s a pretty bad sign. Is this the end—I don’t know,” Joseph Yun, a U.S. special representative for North Korea policy who retired earlier this year, told The Wall Street Journal. “I think they want to completely reduce U.S. expectations.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how the discord would impact the process after Mr. Pompeo told reporters on Saturday that low-level working groups had been established to iron out the details of the agreement.
Mr. Yun said Pyongyang appeared to believe it had offered concessions in stopping nuclear tests.
“From their point of view, you can see that they feel they’ve given something,” Mr. Yun said. “But they don’t get any feeling that Washington is talking with any degree of consistency.”
Senior Trump advisers have expressed skepticism about the talks and last week National Security Adviser John Bolton said Mr. Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang would aim to map out a path to dismantling the bulk of North Korea’s nuclear assets within a year.
Doubt over North Korea’s commitment to its nuclear promise in Singapore were already emerging before the trip. Satellite imagery published in reports last week showed North Korea is rapidly expanding a weapons-manufacturing plant that produces solid fuel missiles and has upgraded its main nuclear research facilities.
Pyongyang is also working on a submarine capable of launching a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, according to a senior South Korean official.
Mr. Pompeo said that the satellite reports had been raised during the meetings and the two parties had discussed how to implement the agreement made at the Singapore summit.
“No one walked away from that; they’re still equally committed, Chairman Kim is still committed,” he said, hours before the North Korean statement.
Another potential stumbling block is the repatriation of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War between 1950-1953.
Mr. Trump told a rally in Minnesota on June 21 that the transfer of more than 200 sets of remains had already taken place, as per the summit agreement. But weeks later, Defense Department officials were still waiting for the promised remains at the border with empty coffins and no explanation for the delay.
When asked about the remains on Saturday, Mr. Pompeo demurred on a timeline for the repatriation, saying the Defense Department would meet the North Koreans for a discussion about the process on July 12.
“The repatriation of remains will take place at the border and that process will begin to develop over the days that follow,” he said.
The secretary of state also declined to elaborate on whether the U.S. and North Korea had come closer to agreeing on a timeline for denuclearization or when Pyongyang might provide a declaration about its assets—both seen as crucial steps in the process.
“I’m not going to get into details of our conversations, but we spent a good deal of time talking about each of those two things and I think we made progress in every element of our discussions,” Mr. Pompeo said.
In return for denuclearization, the U.S. has dangled the prospect of economic investment once sanctions have been lifted.
Still, the North Koreans expressed continued confidence in Mr. Trump: “We maintain our trust in President Trump,” the statement said.
Mr. Pompeo spoke to Mr. Trump on a secure line earlier Saturday after a first day of talks, with Mr. Bolton and White House chief of staff John Kelly on the line, U.S. officials said after the call. No account was provided of the discussion.
Mr. Pompeo was accompanied to Pyongyang by a delegation from the State Department, National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Mr. Pompeo had been “very firm” in seeking three main goals: the complete denuclearization of North Korea, security assurances and the repatriation of U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Mr. Pompeo is expected to meet with Japanese and South Korean officials in Tokyo, who are key regional allies in the process with North Korea.
Officials in Tokyo fear that their interests may be sidelined as Washington pursues talks with North Korea, and have expressed alarm about U.S. concessions such the suspension of major military exercises with South Korea.
Pyongyang downplayed the U.S. concession in its statement on Saturday, saying that the exercises could resume at any time, while the U.S. demand it destroy military facilities would be impossible to reverse if Washington retreated from its commitments.
“Classic North Korean negotiating tactics: Pocket concessions from the United States while stringing out discussions on their own commitments,” said Abraham Denmark, Asia director at Washington-based think tank The Wilson Center. “This is a rejection of U.S. demands for unilateral denuclearization by North Korea, and a clear message that the U.S. will need to give up more to make progress.
The framing differences were glossed over so each side could make their false claims...now the cows are coming home looking for hay...and there is no hay because there was no real agreement to begin with. Each side understands "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" differently. They knew this going in. Now Pompeo was sent to clean up after the president made claims of success that were grandiose and ignored these differences. But Pompeo's trip was doomed to failure and he was left with going back to the same threatening tone which predictably has set Kim on his ear. This will end the way it usually does, but China seems to have made some progress with Kim, so China has probably planned to work this situation to its advantage.